New Covenant Fulfillment and the End of the Law: A Critique of Theonomic Hermeneutics and Political Ethics

Editor’s Note: This is part 7 in our Lyceum Disputation series considering the nature and validity of theonomy. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

The task of interpreting the Bible is more difficult than it might first appear, especially if application to modern life is also attempted (which it always should be). Probably the most challenging aspect of biblical hermeneutics is understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.[1] An affectionate rivalry often exists between scholars of both fields, with Old Testament scholars joking that the New Testament cannot be understood without first studying the Old, while New Testament scholars maintain that the Old Testament is incomplete without the New. Both are right, of course, but this simply magnifies the challenge before us: how to put the Old and New Testaments together into a unified whole (if possible), that teaches a coherent and consistent theology that, nonetheless, may do so in a way we do not expect. Even the expectation of intratestamental unity may be an unfounded or unrealistic presumption, as anyone familiar with the history of biblical interpretation well knows.

There have been many approaches to biblical interpretation throughout Church history: Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament, early Christian allegorizing by the Alexandrian fathers (Clement and Origen), a focus on the literal, historical, and redemptive elements of scripture by the Antiochene school (Chrysostom), law-gospel contrast in Luther, the tripartite division of the law in Calvin, Anabaptist separation of church and state, and more contemporary covenantal and dispensational approaches.[2] Christian reconstructionism, or theonomy (“God’s law”), is a school of interpretation that emerged in the late twentieth century but claims both a biblical and Reformational heritage.[3] In reality, it is an eclectic approach to hermeneutics that draws from many different schools of thought and so represents a unique understanding of intratestamental interpretation and application, especially with its focus on political society. This paper will first clear away misunderstandings of theonomic hermeneutics and political ethics by elucidating theonomy’s claims, and then critique them according to a fulfillment hermeneutic that transforms our understanding of Old Testament law and paves the way for genuine Christian political rule.

Understanding Theonomic Hermeneutics

To understand theonomy correctly, one must first grasp its conception of nature and revelation. Theonomists like Greg Bahnsen argue that man must be guided by the revealed Word of God in all of life—not just in personal ethics and Church gatherings, but in one’s conduct in civil society as well.[4] This includes civil government, legal proceedings, political economy (public policy), economic regulations, and foreign policy. As Bahnsen boldly proclaims, “theonomists are committed to the transformation of every area of life, including institutions and affairs of the socio-political realm, according to the holy principles of God’s revealed word.” Anything less than this, Bahnsen avers, is capitulation to “the social forces of secularism” and “unregenerate pundits” who aggressively rule in anti-Christian ways.[5] Bahnsen’s approach is motivated by the conviction that for anything to be specifically ‘Christian’ (or to act in a Christian way), it must be “explicitly justified by the teaching of God’s revealed word.” Although God has revealed himself to us through both general revelation (reason) and special revelation (scripture), all moral truths that can be known through reason and general revelation are rearticulated and confirmed by scripture. Since we live in a fallen age in which natural revelation is suppressed by unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18, 21), we dare not rely upon human reason alone—not only because we are more likely to err, but also because scripture is a sufficient guide for all of life.[6]

In other places Bahnsen gives a cursory history of the evolution and advancement of secularism in the medieval, early, and late modern periods. Targeting the specters of dualism, nominalism, ‘autonomous’ reason, the Enlightenment, and the fact-value divide, as well as thinkers like Machiavelli, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Sartre, Bahnsen effectively positions the reader to accept his believing/righteous vs. unbelieving/worldly binary and so be more amenable to his theonomic approach to civil government that claims to be based in scriptural injunctions alone.[7] All modern conceptions of government that rest upon natural law, a social compact, or the consent of the governed are manifestations of secular and autonomous reason and man’s rebellion against God.[8] Bahnsen concludes that Western culture has produced a conflict between “an unrestrained, tyrannical state on the one hand and the liberated, unrestrained individual on the other,” which is nothing but a contest between statism and anarchy.[9]

Whole Bible Ethic

The solution to this political instability and godlessness is a return to a thoroughly Christian ethic that takes the Bible seriously for all of life—especially for political governance and public ethics. To this end, the theonomist’s argument consists of four major contentions.[10] First, Christians ought to operate on a whole Bible ethic, or as Bahnsen puts it, the infallible and inspired scriptures are “the sole, supreme, and unchallengeable standard for the actions and attitudes of men in all areas of life.”[11] While different cultures have at times embraced different standards for determining moral right and wrong or defining justice, and while today a plurality of moral claims clamor for supremacy in the public square, Christians ought to plant their ethical flag firmly in the revealed Word of God.[12] Since all of life is ethical and the entire Bible is, one way or another, concerned with how men ought to live in relationship to God and to others, there are no areas of life in which scripture cannot provide guidance for us in some manner.[13]

To support this position Bahnsen makes two claims. Positively, he appeals to biblical passages such as 2 Tim. 3:16-17 that declare that all scripture (pasa graphē) is inspired by God and is beneficial for the purposes of teaching, reprimanding, correcting, and educating in righteousness. Thus, to ignore or disregard any passage of scripture as being relevant to our lives today is to doubt and disregard God’s testimony of his revelation to us.[14] Negatively, Bahnsen denies that there is any source of ethics or moral standard outside the Bible that men are obliged to obey—such as human reason, ethnic or national traditions, or current fashionable trends.[15] As mentioned above, this is why Bahnsen is suspicious of any ethical reasoning that is not explicitly grounding in God’s Word, such as appeals to ‘autonomous’ reason, utility, social convention, or any form of ethical or political contractarianism.[16]

Continuity vs. Discontinuity

Second, theonomists like Bahnsen argue that the relationship between the Old and New Testaments (and thus between the Old Law and the New Law) is primarily one of continuity. Bahnsen makes theological and exegetical arguments for this position. Theologically, the immutability of God necessitates the interpretive principles of the “unity and continuity of God’s inscripturated revelation.” This represents the starting position for Christians and is something that must be presumed: “We must presuppose unity in the word of God, which stands to all generations, and not discontinuity, for who among men can presume to alter the word of the living God?”[17] Exegetically, Bahnsen argues for this from Matthew 5:17-20. There, at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed that he had not come to “abolish” the Law and the Prophets, but instead to “fulfill” them. Indeed, not a single “jot or tittle” shall pass away from the Old Testament law until heaven and earth pass away. Bahnsen interprets these verses to mean that “not even the least significant aspect of the Old Testament law will lose its validity until the end of the world.”[18] Bahnsen makes it abundantly clear what he means by this when he argues that “Christ’s coming did not abrogate anything in the Old Testament law, for every single stroke of the law will abide until the passing away of this world; consequently the follower of Christ is not to teach that even the least Old Testament requirement has been invalidated by Christ and his work.”[19]

At the same time, however, even though the Christian ought to presume continuity between the Old and New Testaments, this does not mean nothing changes (i.e., there is no discontinuity). How does this work, given the strong statement above? Bahnsen resolves this dilemma by making three arguments. First, the Old Testament was a type and shadow of what was to come, and contained promises of a Messiah, a new covenant, and a new law that would fulfill the old law and covenant (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). Bahnsen terms these matters “redemptive-historical discontinuities” between the two testaments.[20] Yet this kind of discontinuity applies only to those elements of the old covenant that Christ fulfilled—namely, the ceremonial parts of the Old Law, such as sacrifice for sin (priesthood and temple system), purity laws, and requirements for physical separation from Gentiles.[21] The language of “ceremonial” is taken from the classical distinction (in late Scholastic and early Reformational theology) between the three types of law in the Mosaic Law: ceremonial law, civil/judicial law, and moral law (see full discussion below).

The second argument is that there are also “cultural discontinuities” between the two Testaments, such that to properly apply any portion of the Old Testament today requires finding an analogous situation in which the principle undergirding Old Testament law can be rightly applied.[22] This means that, third, what actually carries over from the Old to the New Testament is what Bahnsen calls “standing law,” or those moral laws and principles that were apodictically (or propositionally) expressed or that undergird case law in the Mosaic Law. Unless these moral laws are “rescinded or modified by further revelation,” they are still valid and applicable today.[23] Bahnsen summarizes his position by saying that “the position taken here is not that every last detail of Old Testament life must be reproduced today as morally obligatory, but simply that our presumption must be that of continuity with the standing laws of the Old Testament (when properly, contextually interpreted).”[24] Yet Bahnsen is also clear that “standing law” is not merely abstract moral principles but timeless policy directives that are applicable over time, such as “do not kill,” “children, obey your parents,” “merchants, have equal measures,” “magistrates, execute rapists,” and the like.[25]

The Character of God

The third contention that theonomists make is that “revealed standing law” is nothing other than a revelation of the very character and essence of God’s holy, good, and perfect nature. The moral principles derived from standing law are “non-arbitrary, objective, universal, and established in advance of particular circumstances” precisely because they share these attributes in common with God’s nature.[26] The theonomist’s contention follows the testimony of the New Testament of the Old Law’s goodness (1 Tim. 1:8), its spiritual nature (Rom. 7:14), that it should be upheld (Rom. 3:31), that it contained the “oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2), and that it is holy because it came from a holy God who demands holiness (1 Pet. 1:15-16). If a good and perfect God gave commandments to the Israelites such that, if obeyed, they would bring life (Lev. 18:5), how can these commandments be said to be bad, abolished, or inapplicable today? With Paul in Romans 7, the theonomist declares that it was not the law that was the problem but man’s sinfulness—a sinfulness that the law revealed. As Bahnsen summarizes it, “the law’s moral prescriptions must be seen as good” since “the law is a transcript of God’s character.”[27] Accordingly, how one responds to the law is indicative of how one responds to God himself.[28]

Political Ethics

Fourth and finally, theonomists apply the above methodology and insights toward what they call “political ethics.” Bahnsen begins with two contentions regarding the public sphere: (1) that Christ is king over the Messianic kingdom of God and all civil magistrates are required to acknowledge the supremacy of Christ and obey his will in the exercise of their authority; and (2) that the moral law of God in the old covenant is “axiomatically good and universal in character” since it has been “completely upheld by Christ in its moral validity even in its least command, unless God reveals otherwise.”[29] To know the scope of legitimate political action, Bahnsen makes a critical move in distinguishing between what he calls “social ethics” and “political ethics.” The former concerns a realm of private ethics (virtues and vice) not enforceable by criminal law, while the latter delimits the appropriate bounds within which the state may reward good and punish evil (Rom. 13:1-4). With this distinction, Bahnsen is able to justify a philosophy of limited government, protect the family, Church, and other civil institutions as non-political entities, and elevate private charity and market economies as the means to fulfill certain tasks traditionally overseen by the state.[30]

From here Bahnsen makes four further arguments regarding the responsibility of human governments. First, he argues that the nations surrounding Israel were just as much accountable to Israel’s standard of political ethics as she was. Bahnsen’s claim is meant to combat a form of cultural relativism applied to Israel (i.e., her civil/judicial law was given only to her and to no one else) that political philosophers use as a reason to exempt the modern state from a biblical ethic. Instead he tries to demonstrate that not only was Israel’s law given to her as an example for other nations to emulate (Deut. 4:5-8), but that the wisdom and prophetic literature condemn the nations surrounding Israel for failing to abide by God’s statutes (e.g., Ps. 2; Prov. 16:12; Hab. 2:6-20).[31] Second, Bahnsen interprets Romans 13 as not only being an example of a penal political ethics at work, but as teaching that civil magistrates, as God’s ministers, need the law of God to guide them in how and when to enforce moral law.[32]

Third, his discussion of Romans 13 leads Bahnsen to an extended defense of the state’s primary responsibility of enforcing penal law as prescribed by the Bible. Civil magistrates have been instituted by God to enforce civil penalties against criminal behavior and to do so equitably and without mercy. If we do not accept an Old and New Testament standard of penal redress, then we must either abandon political justice entirely or rely upon man’s own (rebellious) standards.[33] Finally, Bahnsen condemns the state using political coercion to impose God’s law on an unwilling society, as well as the use of political violence or revolution to throw off unjust tyrants. Instead, God’s people (whether rulers or citizens) ought to rely upon the means of “regeneration, reeducation, and gradual legal reform” to transform the political order.[34]

Overcoming Misunderstandings

A pertinent and valid critique of theonomy requires that we first understand it as it understands itself. The above summary helps to sweep away a number of popular misconceptions. The most common misconception is that theonomists simply want to apply the entirety of the Mosaic Law as it was given to the Israelites to modern societies.[35] This is not the case (at least with Bahnsen’s version of theonomy). Theonomists are nuanced and careful in their articulation of measured discontinuities between the Old and New Testaments that necessitate reasonable application of Old Testament “standing law” to contemporary life. Secondly, critics often maintain that the problem with theonomy is that it fails to grasp the distinction between principles (whether natural, moral, political, or divine) and their application in specific circumstances (known as determinations or dēterminātiōnēs). Yet this is also incorrect since theonomists like Bahnsen rely upon this distinction in their articulation of “standing law” or in explaining cultural discontinuities.[36] The real debate, then, is over where the line ought to be drawn between principles and application. While many modern Christians think that most of the Mosaic Law outside of the Ten Commandments expresses dēterminātiōnēs particular to Israel and not to the Church or modern society, the theonomist believes that a whole subset of the Mosaic Law (the civil, judicial, and criminal elements) is part of the moral law that is abiding and transculturally binding (and thus not merely an application of some other moral principle). My critique below will take these clarifications into account even while advancing a thorough rejection of theonomic hermeneutics.

Critique of Theonomic Hermeneutics

Much could be said about theonomy’s (i.e., Bahnsen’s) presentation of the historical problem and modern relativism and nihilism (which is overly simplistic and at times simply wrong), or about epistemology vis-à-vis general and special revelation (which is problematic), but I will limit my analysis to three areas: the tripartite division of Old Testament law, the character of God in relationship to the law in the Old Testament, and Christ as the fulfillment of the Law.

The Tripartite Division of the Law

Probably the most important plank in theonomy’s theological scaffolding is the classic trifold division of the Mosaic Law into the ceremonial, civil/judicial, and moral law. This is not unique to theonomy but is shared by many Reformed traditions since it dates back to at least to the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas (if not earlier).[37] In his famous Treatise of Law (questions 90-108 of the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologica), Aquinas not only divided law proper into eternal, natural, human, and divine law (all of which are interrelated), but he further divided divine law into the Old Law and the New Law. The Old Law was then broken down into moral, ceremonial, and judicial precepts.[38] While these three precepts were widely accepted by Reformational Protestantism,[39] in recent years Old Testament scholars and theologians have severely criticized this conceptualization of Old Testament law. The major objection is that the threefold division of the law is arbitrary and represents an anachronistic attempt to simplify the Old Testament for purposes of comprehension and lucid application. For example, Elmer A. Martens makes the following comment: “One must conclude that the distinction between cultic, moral, and civil regulations are, if not artificial, certainly extraneous to Hebrew thought. … As a grid for sorting out the way Christians deal with OT law, the classification of ‘cultic, moral, civil’ is not helpful.”[40] No Israelite would have authentically divided the Mosaic Law into the moral, ceremonial (cultic), and judicial (civil) precepts as Aquinas—and anyone who follows him—does.[41]

Other scholars complain that the threefold approach ignores the context in which the Mosaic Law was given, especially the narrative and theological (covenantal) contexts. The Mosaic Law was not an abstract set of legal codes spelled out in a systematic and comprehensive treatise merely for the purpose of knowing how to conduct oneself before God or in society. Instead, the Law was given to the people of Israel at a critical moment in their national formation, that served as the foundation for their covenant with God. This, in turn, was the very raison d’être of their existence and purpose: to keep the covenant with God and so be blessed with life and prosperity in the promised land (Lev. 18:5; Deut. 30:1-10). An even larger theological context is that of the entire biblical storyline: God rescuing his creation from evil and sin through his chosen people—a story that finds fulfillment in the Messiah who accomplishes what Israel failed to do. This multi-covenantal context means that parts of the Old Testament law are obsolete, not merely because they are historical determinations of the moral precepts, but primarily because of God’s providence and purposes in salvation-history.[42]

Instead of the trifold division, Old Testament scholars attempt to classify the Mosaic Law using the internal structure and logic of the law itself as a guide. In this way, Christopher J. H. Wright comes up with five different kinds of law: criminal law, case (casuistic) law, family law, cultic law (including: sacrificial, sacred calendar, and symbolic laws), and compassionate law.[43] Other scholars classify Old Testament law in even more general terms: casuistic (case) law, apodictic (absolute) law, and various legal series, such as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2-17; Deut. 5:6-21), the Covenant Code (Ex. 20:22-23:33), the Priestly Code (Ex. 25-31; 34:29; Lev. 16), the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26), and the Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12-26).[44] In each of these schemas, the moral, ceremonial, and judicial components of the law (if not others) are inextricably intertwined, making it difficult if not impossible, to tease them apart and so label them as separate elements. If this understanding is correct, then the threefold classification of Old Testament law fails, and consequently, so do the central arguments of the theonomists who lean heavily upon the trifold legal classification—especially in their contention that Israel’s civil, judicial, and criminal laws are transferrable to political ethics today.

Two things need to be said about this, one in defense of theonomy and the other against it. First, contemporary critics have misunderstood the relationship between the three kinds of precepts in the Mosaic Law. It is not that there exist three independent and siloed precepts, such that any commandment is assigned to one and only one of the three. Instead, as Aquinas clearly explains, the entirety of the Old Law has a single, undifferentiated end: establishing friendship, either between man and God or man and man.[45] The aim of the ceremonial law is to bring about friendship between man and God, while the aim of the civil/judicial law is to achieve friendship between man and man. Thus, the entire Old Law can be reduced to the two tables of the decalogue: the first four (or three) commandments that summarize man’s duty toward God (and out of which all of the ceremonial laws and regulations flow), and the last six (or seven) commandments that overview man’s duty toward his fellow man (and out of which all of the civil/judicial laws and regulations flow).[46] This is why Jesus is able to summarize the whole of the Law and the Prophets as the first and second greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-40; citing Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18).[47] Yet behind every ceremonial and civil/judicial law stands a moral precept, because friendship is a virtue that requires just and right relations between the two (or more) parties involved. Thus, all of the Old (Mosaic) Law is a type of moral law that can be broken down into either its ceremonial or civil/judicial elements depending upon whether the vertical divine or horizontal human relationship is being considered.[48]

Interestingly, while Bahnsen grasps this conceptual difference (albeit in his own idiosyncratic terminology) with his distinction between the moral and redemptive functions of Old Testament law,[49] he also has a tendency to go on about “the moral law” of the Old Testament as if there were a set of commandments that could be classified as moral precepts independent of the ceremonial and civil/judicial (or that are identical only to the civil/judicial).[50] This confusion by Bahnsen leads to a second observation. Modern critics of the tripartite division of the Mosaic Law do make a valid point about how the various types of precepts are jumbled together and intertwined in the law code. While this does not negate (in the abstract) the framework that Aquinas (and his intellectual descendants) proposed for understanding the aim and function of the Law, it does raise a problem for theonomists.

This problem is best seen by looking at particular Old Testament texts. Bahnsen wants to claim that certain elements of the Mosaic Law can be isolated as being civil, judicial, or criminal “standing law,” and thus still morally binding and applicable to modern political societies. Since the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law have been fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection (Heb. 7-10), these commandments are no longer binding on the Christian in modern society. This means we should be able to find Old Testament commandments that are strictly civil, judicial, or criminal but not cultic or ceremonial. In some instances, this appears to be the case, such as with Exodus 21:15 (striking father or mother), Exodus 21:28 (human death from animals), Exodus 22:5 (destruction of crops or property), and so forth. Yet what do we do with Exodus 21:12-13 where in the case of accidental manslaughter God himself provides cities of refuge where the perpetrator might flee for safety from filial revenge (cf. Num. 35:9-34; Deut. 19:4-7)? Or consider Exodus 22:7-9 in which ambiguity regarding guilt for property theft or animal harm is determined by the parties “com[ing] near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property” so that “the one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor”?[51] While these commandments involve law at the civil and criminal level, the determination of guilt, penalty, or redress is provided in a cultic and theocratic context in which God himself intervenes. How is this to be applied today in non-theocratic societies wherein God does not personally dwell? There is no justification in slicing up clauses of integral apodictic or casuistic passages in the Old Testament in order to isolate only the civil and judicial components supposedly relevant today.

The problem is that the theonomist has not grasped the most central and abiding aspect of Old Testament law understood both by the rabbinic tradition and by all the New Testament authors: that the Old Testament law—all 613 commandments—were given by God and understood by Israel to be an undivided, integral, and unified whole.[52] There was no way to slice and dice the commandments in order to accept some while rejecting others or to pick and choose those that are applicable and those that are not.[53] As Paul and James make clear (Gal. 5:3; Jas. 2:10), to break even one commandment was tantamount to breaking the whole of the law and so to fall under the covenant curses and threat of exile (Deut. 28:15-68).[54] Neither Jesus nor any of his disciples, nor Paul, nor the author of Hebrews, nor any other New Testament author divides the Mosaic Law into moral, civil/judicial, and ceremonial precepts in order to explain how some are fulfilled and put aside while others are retained for Christian ethics (whether social or political). Instead, all of them treat Old Testament law as a unity that was either accepted as a single law code stipulating the terms of the old covenant, or that was brought to an end by Christ (Rom. 10:4; Heb. 8:13) and replaced by a new covenant stipulated by the Law of Christ (this will be explained fully below). In addition, the Old Law’s unity meant that love of God and love of neighbor went hand-in-hand, for the two tables of the Decalogue were never meant to be separated. Even though in retrospect we might be able to distinguish between so-called ceremonial versus civil/judicial precepts, for the Israelites, to worship God properly was to love one’s neighbor (according to the civil and criminal law) and violations of these judicial commandments was sin against God that required sacrifice for atonement.[55]

An implication of this reality is that Bahnsen’s distinction between “social ethics” and “political ethics” falls on deaf Israelite ears. There is no such distinction found in Old Testament law, and the Israelites would have been puzzled by it.[56]Instead, both the covenant and the law that administered the covenant were given by, overseen, and enforced by God as a king and military leader who physically lived among his chosen people. This means that every law that was social was also political; there were no “private” social sins that were not also criminal or somehow implicated in keeping the covenant. In addition, the cultic and ceremonial were intricately intertwined with the social, political, military, economic, land, purity, festival, and every other element of life. While we can conceptually conceive of the difference between commandments that orient men toward God and others that orient man toward his fellow man, there is no way to pry them apart in Old Testament law and there is no example or precedent in the New Testament that does so. Ironically, Bahnsen’s appeal to a realm of political ethics that limits state action (positively or retributively) and that is distinct from a realm of social ethics that is to be regulated by the Church, economic marketplace, and various civic institutions, finds its origins in the early modern political theories of Hobbes and Locke (political philosophers whom Bahnsen deplores) who posited the separation of civil and political society via a social state of nature prior to the creation of political organization.[57] While Bahnsen and other theonomist might protest that the social vs. political distinction is necessitated by New Testament developments (Christ’s fulfillment of the law, covenantal changes, redefined people of God, etc.), this is not the case as will be shown below.[58]

God’s Character, Divine Accommodation, and the Old Law

The theonomist’s contention that the Mosaic Law (and the entirety of the Law and the Prophets) reflects the character of God is not objectionable in and of itself and is in fact a salient and important theological truth. Too often Christians do ignore the Old Testament as de facto Marcionites and reply only upon the New Testament as a testimony of God’s nature. Since all law reflects the mind and will of the lawgiver, by studying and treasuring the Old Testament we can gain valuable understanding of and love for the God we find revealed there.[59] Yet theonomists go astray in the application of this truth in two ways.

First, the nature of Jesus’ ministry, the New Testament as new covenant, and the obvious fact that the Old Testament cannot merely be applied wholesale to modern societies rightly leads the theonomist to appeal to redemptive-historical, covenantal, and cultural discontinuities between the two Testaments. Yet to find a moral core that is transhistorically and transculturally applicable, and that captures the essence of the Lawgiver, theonomists must engage in certain amount of abstract reasoning regarding Old Testament law. This is the normal process of biblical application that requires climbing the “ladder of abstraction” in moving from particular dēterminātiōnēs in Israelite law to the moral principle behind them in order to then climb back down the ladder of abstraction to analogous and culturally appropriate application in the modern world.[60] Yet Bahnsen insists that since the Old Law (as well as the New Law) is a “transcript of his [God’s] moral character” it is neither abstract nor impersonal. Instead, the law is highly personal and practical because it perfectly reflects God’s own holiness.[61] In addition, not the smallest demand of the Old Law has been abrogated by Christ. Thus, by insisting that the law as found in Old Testament commandments is a reflection of God’s perfect, eternal, and immutable character, and has been validated by Christ, the theonomist closes the door to the necessary process of abstraction in seeking to apply the Old Law today. It is not merely the principles behind the law but the specific commandments themselves that reflect the nature and character of God and that Christ upholds. If the commandments in their final form as received by Israel in the Mosaic Law are holy and good (which is what Paul is saying in Rom. 7:7, 13-14; 1 Tim. 1:8) why are they—and not just the principles behind them—not eternally applicable as given?[62] The theonomist’s appeal to covenantal, redemptive-historical, and cultural discontinuities forces them to engage in the process of abstraction that they seem uncomfortable with because it would seem to reflect poorly on God’s character as found in the specificity of Israel’s law. The theonomist is thus in a bind: God’s law is not abstract or impersonal, but holy and good as found in the Old Testament; yet it is only “standing law” (moral law) behind the commandments that is transculturally applicable and can only be discovered through a process of abstraction, intratestamental discontinuities, and culturally sensitive application to today.

The second problem is that the theonomist fails to consider the fact that Old Testament law involved divine accommodation to Israel’s ancient Near Eastern cultural context as well as her national character. We get a glimpse of this in Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees over divorce in Matthew 19. When they queried Jesus on the Old Law allowing a certificate of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4) Jesus retorted that God (through Moses) allowed the Israelites to divorce because of the hardness of their hearts (Mt. 19:7-8). Yet that is not what God intends; instead, God desires that marriage between a man and his wife be permanent (except for sexual immorality and similar cases) (Mt. 19:9). If God’s commands in the Old Testament regarding marriage and divorce reflected a divine accommodation to Israel’s rebelliousness—and not merely of his holy, perfect, eternal, and unchanging character—then what other elements of the Old Law might also be like this?

We could venture a guess regarding the Old Testament’s acceptance of the practice of slavery (perhaps better termed “indentured servitude”[63]) (Ex. 21:1-11, 20-21, 26-27, 32; Lev. 19:20; 22:11; 25:6, 39-46; Deut. 15:7; 23:15). By employing what some have called a “redemptive hermeneutic,” we can see that God’s law accommodated the paganism of the ancient world even while beginning the process of redeeming Israel from the godless practices around her.[64] This redemptive hermeneutic evidences itself in two ways: first, the laws given to Israel were redemptive vis-à-vis the surrounding culture; second, New Testament law is redemptive vis-à-vis Old Testament law.[65] While the second of these is more controversial, it is highly likely that Paul’s appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus was intended as a rebuke to the practice of slavery.[66] Christians need not have slaves since they are united together in Christ as brothers and sisters in common fellowship under the Lordship of Christ. The point is not to debate this particular example in detail, but merely to complicate the theonomist’s simplistic assumption that Old Testament law is always and everywhere a principled expression of God’s perfect character. Once again, the theonomist has not grappled with the complexity of the Old Testament law as received and practiced by Israel.[67]

Christ as Fulfillment of Old Testament Law

We now come to the main critique of theonomic hermeneutics. Since I cannot go verse-by-verse responding to Bahnsen’s detailed interpretation and discussion of Matthew 5:17-20, I will instead summarize what I believe is a more accurate and salient interpretation of the passage as well as the implications this has for contemporary (political) life. Matthew 5-7 is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he instructs his disciples on the character of the kingdom of God, which Jesus had proclaimed was “at hand” or had “drawn near” (Mt. 4:17; 10:7; Mk. 1:14-15). After delivering a series of beatitudes (blessings) and exhorting his disciples to not hide the truth but proclaim it publicly, Jesus makes a series of critical pronouncements about his view of Old Testament law.

Matthew 5:17 is the key: Jesus’ life, teaching, and ministry (re: his future death, resurrection, and ascension) does not abolish or destroy (katalyō) the “Law or the Prophets” (i.e., the entire Hebrew Scriptures) but instead fulfills (plēroō) them. The language of “fulfillment” is so poignant and ubiquitous in both the Gospels and throughout the New Testament that some biblical scholars have posited that it should be the central theme in New Testament biblical theology.[68] In other words, to understand what Jesus means by “fulfill,” we cannot merely do a word study in Matthew;[69] instead, we must consider the whole of Jesus’ life and what he accomplished, as well as how his disciples and apostles worked this out in the early Church vis-à-vis Christianity’s emergence and distinction from Judaism.[70]

By the first century A.D. the Jewish self-conception was of a chosen and covenant people who lived under Roman oppression in their own land and thus were still in exile (of a sort). Although the temple had been rebuilt, the Jews still awaited the coming Messiah who was promised by their scriptures (Ps. 2:7-9; Isa. 42:1-4; Dan. 7:9-10) and the return of their God at the end of the age to defeat their political and geographical enemies and to establish, once for all, his kingdom on earth centered around his people and the Promised Land. Jewish eschatology was linear and consisted of two ages (this age and the age to come) separated by the Messiah and God’s return.[71] Yet in his declaration that the kingdom of God (or heaven) had “drawn near,” Jesus upset not only Jewish eschatology, but their expectations of how God’s covenant promises to them would be fulfilled. Jesus’ pronouncement about the kingdom of God in Matthew and throughout the Gospels contained a dual temporal component: the kingdom had, in some way, already arrived (especially in Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms); yet other elements of the kingdom were still to come (e.g., future judgment and paradise).

Biblical scholars speak of this as “inaugurated eschatology” that has “already, but not-yet” elements to it.[72] In Jesus’ first coming he initiated God’s inbreaking kingdom and through his life, death, and resurrection fulfilled the Old Testament’s promise of a circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:12-22; 30:5-6) and a new covenant written on the hearts of God’s people (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-28; cf. Heb. 8:6-13) that would transform them spiritually so that they might love and obey God’s commands and do Christian acts of love (i.e., the fruits of the Spirit, Gal. 5:22-25). In his first coming Jesus displayed the power of God’s kingdom by breaking the demonic stranglehold of sin and death (Rom. 7:24-25; 8:2-4); and through his ascension he paved the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-31; Acts 2). Since these are first and foremost spiritual realities (e.g., eternal life, filling of the Spirit; but with concomitant physical aspects as well, e.g., healings, reconciliation between enemies, freedom from sin, etc.), scholars like to describe the kingdom of God in Christ’s first advent as the reign of God. In his second coming Christ will consummate and complete his kingdom in a geopolitical way that brings final defeat of all his enemies and establishes the heavenly city of Jerusalem in the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:1). Thus, Christ’s second advent achieves a cosmic kingdom realm.[73] Even so, the spiritual and physical cannot be separated into ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’: what begins now with inner transformation by faith in Christ (doing what the Old Law could not do) necessarily has tangible consequences in the present—namely, new habits and disciplines, restored relationships, Church fellowship and liturgical practice, Christian marriage, education, and culture, and so forth. Christ’s inaugurated kingdom touches every area of life—even law, politics, and public policy—even though its perfection awaits his second coming.

Therefore, Jesus’ declaration that he was fulfilling the Law and the Prophets in Matthew 5:17-20 must be understood in the context of the eschatological kingdom of God.[74] When Jesus says in v. 18 that neither an iota nor dot will pass from the Law “until all has taken place” (heōs an panta genētai) this is a reference to his own person and work, not some (still) future eschaton.[75] The implication, then, is that even the smallest letter and demand of the law will be brought to completion in him, notthat it continues until some future date. Jesus’ reference to the “kingdom of heaven” twice in v. 19 and once in v. 20 is to the kingdom he was inaugurating, meaning, that the “commandments” in v. 18 do not refer antecedently to the Law and the Prophets, but look forward to his teaching in vv. 21-48.[76] And the righteousness that Christ demands in v. 20 is not a righteousness that comes from Jewish works of the law (sacrifice, purity, circumcision, keeping the commandments, etc.), but a kingdom righteousness in and through Christ’s atonement.

What all of this does not mean is that Jesus has partly fulfilled the Old Law in his first coming (i.e., the ceremonial bits), but the rest of the Law remains operative until he finishes fulfilling it in his second coming (as a theonomist might argue). As mentioned above, Old Testament law is an integral unit that cannot be split apart; if any part of it is brought to completion or an end (its telos is fulfilled), then all of it is completed and ended.[77] That this was the case with Jesus can be seen in the fact that he perfectly fulfilled all the requirements of the law. In so doing he not only completed the law (Rom. 10:4; Heb. 8;13) but he was able to be a once-for-all unblemished sacrifice and his righteousness was imputed to those who believe in him (Rom. 8:2-4; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:11-14; 1 Pet. 1:19). While the fulfillment of some of the promises of the Old Testament await Christ’s second coming (Ps. 110:1-7; Isa. 11:1-9, etc.), many other promises and all the commandments of the Old Law were fulfilled by Christ in his first coming and so the Law’s requirements were satisfied.[78]

In what way, then, can Jesus say that he did not abolish the Law and the Prophets? If his person and work fulfilled the requirements of the law such that its terminus ad quem was accomplished, then the Old Law would seem to be ended and thus abolished.[79] The best way to understand the notion of “fulfillment” is not that something is completed and terminated, but that it is incorporated, transformed, and refracted through an entirely new dimensional reality. The Old Law is not abolished precisely because it is fulfilled by being transformed into the Law of Christ (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:24-26; Heb. 8:13). A good analogy is a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly: the metamorphosis is so utterly thorough that the caterpillar qua caterpillar no longer exists, yet the DNA of the butterfly still matches that of the caterpillar even though it is being expressed in a more beautiful, radiant, and complete way. Similarly, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Law effects a metamorphosis of total transformation of that Law, even though the DNA of the Old Law is still subsumed under the Law of Christ. This fulfillment means that at times the Old Testament commandments are principally confirmed;[80] in other cases, their full meaning is explained as they are internalized or intensified (as with the six antitheses in Mt. 5:21-48);[81] in a few cases, the commandments have fulfilled their purpose and are no longer needed (Mt. 19:8-9; 5:21-32). In all cases, the Christian is released from the burden of keeping any of the Old Testament commandments as part of the Mosaic Law. Dorsey sums up this view best: “legally, none of the 613 stipulations of the Sinaitic covenant are binding upon NT Christians, including the so-called moral laws, while in a revelatory and pedagogical sense all 613 are binding upon us, including all the ceremonial and civil laws.”[82]

The Christian lives under the Law of Christ according to the righteousness and forgiveness Jesus purchased for us and the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. Thus, the “end” of the Old Law via Christ’s person and work is neither antinomianism nor is it dispensationalism.[83] That a fulfillment hermeneutic is not a form of dispensationalism can be seen by thinking of the new covenant as the fifth and largest of a set of nesting dolls that swallows up and incorporates the previous four dolls: the Adamic covenant, the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, and the Mosaic covenant were all iterations of the same purposes and promises of God toward his creation and that found their zenith and final form in the new covenant of Christ (cf. Gal. 3:14, 17-18). This new covenant does not invalidate the previous covenants, but it does perfect a type of eternal and infallible administration that makes good on God’s promises, requirements, and blessings (cf. all of Hebrews).

Theonomists who conceive of the relationship between the Old Testament and the ministry of Christ as one of continuity of the Old Law unless and until Christ repeals or changes it, do not understand the radical nature of Christ’s person and work.[84] The entirety of the Old Law has been made obsolete (Heb. 8:13) and is no longer binding for Christians because it has been swallowed up by the Law of Christ and utterly transfigured from a pale, one-dimensional shadow into a beautiful, vibrant, four-dimensional landscape. Additionally, theonomists who attempt to lift the so-called civil, judicial, and criminal aspects of the Mosaic Law and reinstitute them today are actually once again placing themselves under the entirety of the Old Law (since the Law is a unity) which represents a de facto rejection of the new covenant and Law of Christ. While they will deny this, they cannot have their cake and eat it too—just how the Christians in Acts 15 who were bedeviled by the Judaizers (who insisted upon circumcision as a condition of salvation) could not both embrace Christ and seek to implement elements of the Old Law. The only way to be sure to “keep the Old Law” is to fully embrace the Law of Christ through a life of faith and Christian obedience and charity. Since Christ did keep the Old Law perfectly, those who believe in him and are transformed into his image (Rom. 8:29) will share in the righteousness Christ gained (by keeping the stipulations of the Law) when they are united with him (Rom. 6:3-5).

Political Implications

If Jesus’ fulfillment and completion of the purposes and promises of the Old Testament means that the Old Law is no longer binding for believers as legal stipulations under the old covenant—making theonomy’s appeal to the so-called “civil, judicial, and criminal laws” of the Mosaic Law illegitimate—how are Christians to act in the political realm? The Church, as the reconstituted and extended people of God are bound to obey the Law of Christ, yet Christ did not set out a social or political agenda in the New Testament precisely because that task awaits the consummation of his kingdom in a geopolitical realm when he returns at his second coming (Rev. 21:1-4, 10-11, 22-27; 22:1-5). Jesus’ silence in these matters is what drives theonomists back to the Old Testament because of their conviction that believers ought to be guided primarily by scripture as the final authority in all matters of life. Would God leave us without guidance regarding law, government, criminal justice, social and economic policy, and the like?

Yet the theonomist’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry as the complete fulfillment of the Old Law and the initiation of God’s eschatological kingdom leaves them unable to conceive of any other approach. Some theologians who do grasp these new covenantal and new creational realities believe that both Jesus’ silence on politics and what he does teach about the character of the kingdom, God’s people, and the fruits of the Spirit, requires a form of pietistic withdrawal from the business of public governance.[85] Both of these responses to Jesus’ ministry and a subsequent New Testament biblical theology are flawed: it is not necessary either to reinstitute portions of the Mosaic Law or to abandon the task of Christian political governance altogether.

Christians live in the “in-between times,” in the eschatological tension of a kingdom that has been inaugurated and that is continually growing and spreading to all peoples throughout the earth, but that is not yet complete. While the Church is not identical to God’s kingdom, believers do comprise part of the kingdom, are new creational representatives of the King of that kingdom (Christ as the New Adam), and so constitute the partial means by which Christ’s kingdom grows and spreads. These truths do not necessitate a postmillennial eschatology (nor, for that matter, premillennial or amillennial eschatology), but instead lead to the conclusion that Christians ought to serve in politics and influence governments as Christians, yet with the awareness that the fullness of God’s kingdom as a geopolitical realm will never be perfectly realized this side of Christ’s Parousia.

What does this look like? First, we agree with theonomists that we should take the Bible seriously for all areas of life. The Bible does give us some guidance on political matters, but it is not as thorough or complete as we would like it to be. The reason for this is due to the nature of Christ’s kingdom: the reconstituted people of God now extend beyond ethnic Israel to incorporate all peoples of every tribe, nation, language, custom, and way of life (which is another reason why it is inappropriate to take Israel’s law as an infallible law for all peoples). As such, the gospel is able to do what no other religion can do, namely, transform every culture according to a kingdom ethic even while retaining (or redeeming) essential elements of that culture such that believers need not completely reject or revoke their earthly heritage. This is why scripture speaks of “a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” who will worship the Lamb before the throne (cf. Isa. 2:2-4; Zech. 14:16-17).[86] Due to this, the political task for Christians interested in organizing social life toward ends that are good and common to all will look different in every nation. Even though man’s earthly needs (protection, safety, prosperity) and his summum bonum (fellowship with God) are the same everywhere and for everyone, the application of these truths must be amenable to particular peoples, cultures, and histories. Excellence in Christian governance requires general biblical political principles combined with particular applications of reason, experience, knowledge of history, prudence, and wisdom.

Second, we also agree with theonomists that Christ is presently a King (Eph. 1:21-23), seated at the right hand of God the Father (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), interceding for believers (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25), and providentially ruling over all the kingdoms of men (Col. 1:16; Rev. 1:5). Believers are not just ambassadors of a gospel of a dying and risen Messiah, but vicegerents of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14). It is through our union with Christ (Rom. 6:5) that we have been recreated in the image of the New Adam (Rom. 8:29), and so through Christ (i.e., as Christians) we are now able to complete the original commission God gave to Adam in the Garden: to fill the earth and subdue it and to establish and exercise dominion over all of God’s creation as the reconstituted people of God. This task inevitably has political dimensions that Christians must not shirk. There is nothing wrong in principle with seeking to implement Christian laws and government for the good of all (even many unbelievers), even though there is no cookie-cutter or one-size-fits all template that can be instituted identically everywhere.

Third, the reality that Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament law frees Christians to go back to the Mosaic Law, not as an absolute and binding legal code to be replicated today, but as a principled and paradigmatic example of how God’s mind, heart, and will could be expressed in human law. Once again, Christians are not bound by the Old Law but by the Law of Christ; even so, the Old Law serves as a testimony and example that Christians can utilized to know how they might govern well in certain situations in contemporary society.[87] Fourth, there is no reason to take Jesus’ many teachings to exclude Christians from political roles, as if a Christian ethic somehow disallows the use of political power, coercion, punishment of criminals, military engagement, and the like. Even Jesus’ teachings on retaliation (Mt. 5:38-42) and loving one’s enemies (Mt. 5:43-47; Lk. 6:27-36) are fully compatible with political life and rule.[88] Fifth and finally, we ought to take the final cause of civil government as spelled out in Romans 13 seriously: to reward good and punish evil.[89] This means civil magistrates need not be restricted to a “political” sphere divorced from the “social,” “religious,” or “economic.”[90] Instead, we can confirm with Aristotle that the political art, when properly ordered (i.e., guided by natural law and refined by Christian theology), is the architectonic science that guides us toward a multitude of genuine earthly goods as well as our final end of happiness.[91]


Since this essay has been so long, we will conclude with a brief summary of the main differences between theonomy and a fulfillment hermeneutic:

  • Whereas a theonomic hermeneutic teaches that Old Testament law can be subdivided into ceremonial, civil/judicial, and moral precepts for the purposes of recovering the civil/judicial and moral law, a fulfillment hermeneutic teaches that the Old Law is a unity that cannot be subdivided for the purpose of continued obedience or legal application.
  • Whereas a theonomic hermeneutic holds that the Mosaic Law was an essential expression of God’s perfect, holy, and just character, a fulfillment hermeneutic holds that the Old Law evinces divine accommodation to Israel’s character, cultural milieu, and particular covenantal and election purposes (but this is not cultural relativism).
  • Whereas a theonomic hermeneutic believes that the Old Law continues in its validity and has not been abolished and that there is basic continuity between the Old and New Testaments unless repealed or changed by Christ, a fulfillment hermeneutic believes that the entirely of the Old Law has been fulfilled and transformed into the Law of Christ, such that Christians are no longer legally or covenantally obligated to obey any of the stipulations of the Old Law.
  • Whereas a theonomic hermeneutic maintains that Christians are still obligated to personally obey and to mold political ethics after certain commandments, stipulations, and moral “standing law” found in the Old Testament, a fulfillment hermeneutic maintains that the Church is bound by the Law of Christ in the New Testament and the state is to be directed by political statesmanship that combines biblical principles with prudential judgments toward achieving substantive goods (and not just deontic obligations).
  • Whereas a theonomic hermeneutic avers that a distinction between social and political ethics can be seen in scripture and ought to be maintained in modern governance, a fulfillment hermeneutic denies that the Old or New Testaments explicitly teach such a thing or that the state today must strictly abide by such an artificial division.
  • Whereas a theonomic hermeneutic stresses God’s “standing law” as an absolutely binding, unchanging, and eternal law universally applicable for all polities and institutions, a fulfillment hermeneutic stresses the already, but not-yet eschatological nature of Christ’s kingdom that establishes a kingdom reign with concomitant earthly applications in all areas of life, but without a perfectly corresponding kingdom realm.

[1] “Hermeneutics” derives from hermēneuō (“to explain, interpret, or translate”) and hermēneia (“interpretation, translation”). For a more extensive discussion of definition, see William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 42-53.

[2] For a good summary, see Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downer Groves, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 387-408.

[3] Greg L. Bahnsen names his version of Christian reconstructionism a “Theonomic Reformed Approach” (see “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996], 93-142). Others have vigorously disputed theonomy’s claim to be Reformed.

[4] Although R.J. Rushdoony and Gary North are also prominent theonomists (and Rushdoony can probably be credited with initiating the movement), I will be using Greg Bahnsen as my primary interlocutor since he was the most intelligent, prolific, and formidable mind among them.

[5] Greg L. Bahnsen, “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: The Theonomic Perspective: Part I,” Transformation 5, no. 2 (1988): 24. Bahnsen clarifies that to the extent that unbelievers do rule in good and wise ways, this is credited to God’s common grace, not any good capacity in them (ibid., 30n1).

[6] Ibid., 30n1; Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 116n13. This epistemology is what motivates Bahnsen’s presuppositionalism as well as his distrust in the ability of human reason and natural law.

[7] For Bahnsen’s take on “the problem” facing Christians today, see By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 15-19; Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd ed.(Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002), 1-10.

[8] Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 6-7. This assessment is incorrect. In fact, social compact theory has its roots in the notion of biblical covenant-making which was transmitted to America through its Protestant heritage (see Glenn A. Moots, Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology [Colombia, MO: University of Columbia Press, 2010]).

[9] By This Standard, 17. A modern version of this argument can be found in Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), esp. ch. 2. Like Deneen, Bahnsen has a tendency to conflate all forms of “liberalism” from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and construe them as a “poison pills” that opened a Pandora’s box of secularism, individualism, and immorality.

[10] Bahnsen lists twelve, but I have condensed them to four for simplicity’s sake (see “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 24-25; “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 141-43.)

[11] Bahnsen, “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 24.

[12] Bahnsen, By This Standard, 13-15, 19-20.

[13] Ibid., 21-28.

[14] Ibid., 24. Bahnsen marshals other biblical evidence for his claim that the entire Bible is our “ethical yardstick.”

[15] Bahnsen, “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 24.

[16] Ibid., 26. Bahnsen claims that natural revelation or reason is insufficient: it has been “suppressed in unrighteousness” (citing Rom. 1:18, 21), requiring that special revelation (scripture) “check, confirm, and correct” it; plus, since all the moral norms that can be known or discovered naturally are repeated in scripture (and then many more added), the Bible is sufficient as our sole guide for ethics (“The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 116n13; cf. “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 26, 30n1).

[17] Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 183-84; By This Standard, 2-3. Bahnsen claims this theological (and methodological) position is the heart of covenant theology over and against dispensational schemes (ibid., 3).

[18] By This Standard, 27; cf. “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 30. For his full and thorough treatment of this passage, including dialogue with other interpretive options, see Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 41-88.

[19] By This Standard, 27.

[20] “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 27; By This Standard, 6. Bahnsen goes into detail as to the nature of the greater revelation of Christ than that of Moses’: the new covenant surpasses the old covenant in granting power to obey God’s commandments, in unfading glory, in finality of Christ’s atoning work and God’s full revelation, and in redefining the people of God and changing land promises (see “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 27-28; “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 142).

[21] “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 142; “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 27-28.

[22] By This Standard, 5-6; “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 27, 30.

[23] “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 142, 142n36; “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 24; By This Standard, 9; Theonomy in Christian Ethics, xxvi.

[24] By This Standard, 6.

[25] “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 142n36; “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 30n5; Theonomy in Christian Ethics, xxvi, note 13. However, it might be that Bahnsen thinks the policy directives are identical to their abstract moral principles, in which case there is no difference between principle and application.

[26] “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 142.

[27] Ibid., 94, 109; “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 28.

[28] See Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 141-48.

[29] “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: The Theonomic Perspective: Part II,” Transformation 5, no. 3 (1988): 24.

[30] Ibid., 24-25. Bahnsen makes it clear that he accepts a certain understanding of separation of church and state, but that this is not the same thing as the sacred/secular divide (ibid., 25). In his view, church and state are institutionally separate (i.e., social vs. political), but both should still be guided by God’s moral law. There is no “secular” sphere.

[31] Ibid., 26. Bahnsen has misread Deut. 4:5-8, which nowhere commands other nations to follow the Mosaic Law but merely says that if Israel keeps the covenant, she will be a witness to other nations of God’s glory and greatness. Bahnsen’s binary between cultural relativism or abiding by Israel’s political ethic is a false dichotomy.

[32] “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part II,” 26-27.

[33] Bahnsen makes it clear that there is no reason to believe that the “‘political’ provisions of God’s Old Testament law have been abrogated” (ibid., 27). For a critique of the penal element in theonomy, see Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 406-7.

[34] “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part II,” 28. Once again, Bahnsen misreads Rom. 13 (and the entire Reformation tradition) as supposedly prohibiting political revolution (see, for example, the 1579 Huguenot tract Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos,probably authored by Junius Brutus, as a defense of resistance against unjust rulers).

[35] This misunderstanding is easy to make, especially because theonomists carelessly use absolutist and rigid statements as to the continuing validity of the entire Old Testament law.

[36] See “The Theonomic Approach to Law and Gospel,” 142n36; “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 24-25, 30n5.

[37] Wright contends that Origin made a distinction between the moral and ceremonial law in the Old Testament (Old Testament Ethics, 388-89).

[38] STh, I-II, q. 99, aa. 2-5. I am using the Fathers of the English Dominican Province edition (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Complete English Edition in Five Volumes, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province [New York: Benziger Bros., 1948]). See for an online version.

[39] For example, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), bk. 4, ch. 20, §§14-15 (vol. 2:1502-3). Calvin clearly refers to the “moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws,” but at other times replaces “judicial” with “civil.” Hence, many scholars today speak of the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws.

[40] Elmer A. Martens, “How is the Christian to Construe Old Testament Law?” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12, no. 2 (2002): 201.

[41] Charles C. Ryrie, “The End of the Law,” Bibliotheca Sacra 124 (1967): 239-40; David A. Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34, no. 3 (Sept. 1991): 329-30.

[42] See J. Daniel Hays, “Applying the Old Testament Law Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 629 (2001): 24-30; cf. Martens, “How is the Christian to Construe Old Testament Law?” 203-12.

[43] Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 288-301.

[44] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Biblical Interpretation, 439-42.

[45] STh I-II, q. 99, a. 1, ad. 2; q. 99, a. 2, resp. The nature and image of man and his end is how the Prima Secundae opens and is the goal toward which Aquinas is working. By the time the reader gets to the middle of the Prima Secundae, Thomas is considering this end in relation to extrinsic acts of virtue (the cardinal virtues) and vice, which launches his treatment of law at the end of I-II. Not until the Secunda Secundae (II-II) does he consider the means of grace under the New Law (e.g., the infused theological virtues of faith, hope, and love) by which man, via the virtue of religion, is able to experience divine justice, be made good, and so find friendship with God.

[46] The reason for the Decalogue’s breakdown into 4/6 or 3/7 is discussed by Aquinas in STh I-II, q. 100, a. 4, resp.

[47] Cf. STh, I-II, q. 100, aa. 3, 11 where Aquinas argues that these two commandments compose the primary precepts of the natural law (“first general principles of the natural law”), while the commandments of the decalogue compose the secondary immediate precepts of the natural law (“conclusions to general principles”) (STh, I-II, q. 100, a. 11).

[48] Dorsey gets this right when he rhetorically quips, “Which of the 613 laws is not ‘moral’?” (“The Law of Moses,” 330). Aquinas does seem to explicitly say that there are three distinct precepts of the Old Law (STh, I-II, q. 99, a. 4, resp.). But we must read him very carefully. He says the ceremonial precepts are the “determinations of Divine worship,” the judicial precepts are “determinations of the justice to be maintained among men,” but that the moral precepts are “dictated by the natural law.” Previously, Aquinas claimed that the Old Law was distinct from the natural law not as being something different, but added to it (STh, I-II, q. 99, a. 2, ad. 1). The precepts of the natural law had oriented man toward the good of himself, others, and God (STh, I-II, q. 94, a. 2, resp.)—exactly what the ceremonial and judicial precepts do but in a more perfect way as determinations of the universal precepts of the natural law (cf. STh, I-II, q. 91, a. 4; q. 99, a. 2, ad. 2; q. 99, a. 4, resp.; q. 101, a. 1, resp.). Thus there is overlap between the moral (natural law) precepts and the ceremonial and judicial precepts.

[49] “Christ and the Role of Civil Government, Part I,” 27.

[50] “Christ and the Role of Civil Government, Part I,” 26, 29; “Christ and the Role of Civil Government, Part II,” 24-25; By This Standard, 136-37.

[51] Scholars likes to cite Num. 30:30 and Deut. 17:6 about guilt being determined by two or three eye-witnesses (but not just one). Yet it is easy to ignore Ex. 22:7-9 in which God reveals the guilty party.

[52] See Charles C. Ryrie, “The End of the Law,” Bibliotheca Sacra 124 (1967):241-42; Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian,” 330.

[53] See Dorsey’s comments to this effect (“The Law of Moses and the Christian,” 329-32).

[54] Note that Deut. 28:15 says, “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and statutes that I command you today…” Cf. Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10.

[55] Cf. Aquinas, STh, I-II, q. 99, a. 1, ad. 2. My critique of the tripartite understanding of the Old Law could cut against traditional Reformed theology as well as theonomy. To be clear, I am not against the tripartite view as Aquinas understood and explained it, but I do think that dividing Old Testament law into three different and separate precepts for the purpose of modern application is inaccurate and anachronistic, and should be abandoned. What should not be abandoned is recognizing the moral dictates of the natural law that lie behind all the ceremonial and judicial precepts, and that these can be discerned and applied best when passed through a Christological filter. This view confirms with Aquinas that grace does not abolish or annul nature, but perfects it.

[56] Why should we (as Christians) care what Israel believed about their law? Because Jesus was a Jew who understood and kept the law (rightly) as a Jew, Paul was a (former) rabbi, and the apostles were all ethnic Israelites. All of them assumed the comprehensive integrity of the Old Law and none of them appealed to a distinction between social and political ethics, either in their interpretation of Old Testament law or their reformulation of it in the Law of Christ.

[57] Bahnsen would of course deny this. Yet it is telling that all throughout his essays he judiciously quotes scripture to fortify his arguments, but suddenly goes quiet when discussing the social vs. political ethics distinction. This in itself does not falsify his argument, but it is clear that he’s not deriving these categories from scripture.

[58] Bahnsen’s appeal to Rom. 13 is futile: there the state is limited to rewarding good and punishing evil simpliciter, but there is not a word about this action being circumscribed to a political realm distinct from a social one. If one reads “law” in 1 Tim. 1:8-10 as “political (ethical) law” then the state would be empowered to punish all ungodliness (even “social” sins), including anyone who teaches unsound doctrine, according to the text.

[59] See Dorsey’s pertinent comments on this point (“Law of Moses and the Christian,” 332).

[60] See Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 609-35; Dorsey, “Law of Moses and the Christian,” 332-34. Bahnsen understands this process well with his example of railings on the roofs of houses in the ancient Near East (Deut. 22:8) that were applying the principle of precaution in keeping people safe. Yet since modern Americans do not use rooftops as living quarters, we need not build roof railings even though we ought to take other precautions inside the house (such as railings around staircases) (see Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 101-2; By This Standard, 138).

[61] “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” 109; “Christ and the Role of Civil Government: Part I,” 28-29.

[62] Thus we could ask the question: is it not holy and good that slaves bought from among one’s own people serve for six years and go free in the seventh (Ex. 21:1-2)? The question—and the commandment—not only presupposes the existence of slavery, but also its acceptability. In other words, if slavery qua slavery was immoral or evil and God’s commandments always reflect his righteous character, then God would have prohibited it outright (as he did with murder, adultery, and homosexuality) instead of merely regulating the institution. Thus, by claiming that the Old Law as given is identical with God’s character, the theonomist has no principled way of condemning slavey but must admit that it is, in principle, morally good.

[63] See the discussion of this in Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 124-26. Copan’s book overall evidences a more mature and thoughtful hermeneutic than that used by theonomists.

[64] Copan discusses this throughout his chapters on slavery (ibid., 124-57), but the most thorough treatment is found in William J. Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001).

[65] The first of these can also be seen in the New Testament in the household codes (Haustafeln) that required masters to treat their slaves better than their Greco-Roman counterparts (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1).

[66] See the salutary comments by Doug Moo in The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 369-78.

[67] In fact, Paul’s contention that the law was a “babysitter” (paidagōgos) means the entire Old Testament law was a type of divine accommodation to Israel’s unbelief and spiritual infancy (see Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Commands of God,” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping unity in diversity [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 83).

[68] Craig L. Blomberg, A New Testament Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018). See also Douglas J. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 319-76.

[69] For a detailed analysis of Jesus’ relationship to the Mosaic Law that goes far beyond what we can discuss here, see Douglas J. Moo, “Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 20 (1984): 3-49.

[70] As many biblical scholars believe, this was Paul’s primary task—to explain and then live out how Jesus transformed Judaism such that a distinctive Christian faith and practice emerged (see N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology [London: T&T Clark, 1991]. For Jesus’ relationship to Judaism see E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism [Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985]).

[71] On Jewish vs. Christian eschatology, see Roy E. Ciampa, “The History of Redemption,” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping unity in diversity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 254-308.

[72] The older term (by C.H. Dodd) was “realized eschatology.” See the seminal work by George Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986); and George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 55-56. For an exhaustive biblical theology centered around inaugurated eschatology, see G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011). See also my draft paper “The Kingdom of God According to the Gospel of Matthew” (

[73] See Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, 54-78.

[74] David VanDrunen also helpfully takes this approach (see “Jesus Came ‘Not to Abolish the Law but to Fulfill It’: The Sermon on the Mount and Its Implications for Contemporary Law,” Pepperdine Law Review 47, no. 2[2020]: 523-48).

[75] See Robert Banks, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law: Authenticity and Interpretation in Matthew 5:17-20,” Journal of Biblical Literature 93, no. 2 (1974): 235-36. In addition, the “until heaven and earth pass away” is probably not a reference to specific future event (i.e., the events of Mt. 24-25), but is merely an idiomatic expression of something that is extremely difficult. In other words, the Old Law is unmovable by men until the Messiah fulfills it (ibid., 234).

[76] Ibid., 240. Banks suggests that this is why Jesus says those who relax the commandments of the kingdom will still somehow make it into the kingdom (albeit as “least”), whereas relaxing a single commandment of the Old Law was tantamount to breaking it all and being excluded from the covenant.

[77] Ryrie, “The End of the Law,” 242.

[78] This is best understood by maintaining the distinction between the old covenant’s promises and blessings and the administration of that covenant through the Mosaic law code. God originally promised Abraham land, seed, and blessing (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:13-16; 17:4-8; 22:15-18) that was partially fulfilled in Israel but won’t be fully realized in its eschatological dimensions until Christ’s return, whereas the entirety of the old administration has ended and been replaced by the Law of Christ and the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-18).

[79] See Ryrie, “The End of the Law,” 244-45.

[80] The New Testament principally confirms nine of the original Ten Commandments. The only one not confirmed is Sabbath-keeping. Whether or not Christians are required to keep the Sabbath as instituted in Israel is hotly debated (for an affirmative position, see Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 775-801; against this, see the collection of essays in D.A. Carson, ed. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1982]).

[81] Scholars debate whether these six antitheses refer to Old Testament law or to Jewish and rabbinic oral traditions (and misinterpretations). My view is that both are involved at different points (see Moo, “Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law,” 3-49; Schreiner, “The Commands of God,” 99; and VanDrunen, “Jesus Came ‘Not to Abolish the Law,’” 536-46).

[82] Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian,” 325. See also VanDrunen, “Jesus Came ‘Not to Abolish the Law,’” 534-36. What Christians are not to do, however, is go through the New Testament and try to find a Christological analogue for all 613 commandments. This is not only an impossible task, but a misunderstanding of Christ’s fulfillment of the Law. Christians are freed from the demands of the Mosaic Law but are called to obey Christ’s commandments (Mt. 28:20), and so should focus on fully understanding Christian discipleship as taught in the New Testament. By obeying Christ we can trust that we are actually keeping the Old Law better than any Jew could have.

[83] Thus we can satisfy John Calvin’s concerns with the antinomianism of some of his contemporaries who wanted to completely do away with the whole of the Law of Moses (see Institutes, 2.7.13).

[84] I do not use the terminology of “continuity/discontinuity” for this very reason: these terms are insufficient to explain the relationship between the two Testaments or the fulfilling work of Christ.

[85] This seems to be VanDrunen’s view (see his essay in this series, “Theonomy: A Theological Critique,” and “Jesus Came ‘Not to Abolish the Law,’” 546-48)

[86] In other words, Christian faith and discipleship does not cast believers into nondescript, interchangeable, global, cosmopolitan units within the Church. We are all transformed by the gospel through union with Christ and the fruit of the Spirit, yet we still retain our distinctive heritage, language, culture, and ways of life (that is, those that are not intrinsically evil).

[87] For a good example of what this would look like in the particulars, see the entirety of Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. I do not agree with all his conclusions, but his approach is hermeneutically valid and stands in contradistinction to theonomy.

[88] Defense of this point goes beyond my purposes here and would require a separate paper. 

[89] To understand Rom. 13 properly, see E. J. Hutchinson, “‘Nursing Fathers’: The Magistrate and the Moral Law,” Ad Fontes: A Journal of Protestant Resourcement 4. no 2 (Dec. 2019): 1-6 (

[90] Generic appeals to Mt. 22 and the distinction between God and Caesar do not disprove this point.

[91] Nicomachean Ethics 7.11 (1152b1-8). This is not to say that politics can save us, but that politics (much like philosophy) is a handmaid to theology and so should elevate the Church and the gospel (instead of advocating for a religiously ‘neutral’ public square) so that all might come to know Christ and eternal life. This can be done through civil law, the law of fashion (honor and shame), public religious ceremony (prayer, thanksgiving, oaths), and devout statesmanship without reverting to forced conversions (whether of adults or infants).


  • Ben R. Crenshaw

    Ben R. Crenshaw is a PhD student in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He is a graduate of Taylor University (BA, History), Denver Seminary (MA, New Testament Biblical Studies; MA, Apologetics and Ethics), and Hillsdale College (MA, Politics). He has previously written for The Public Discourse and The Federalist, as well as co-authored several chapters in works on discipleship and biblical worship. His interest is the intersection of religion and politics in the Western and American heritage.

    View all posts

Connect With TLL

Podcast Channels