Rehabilitating Theonomy (I)
It is hard not to feel an attraction to theonomic ethics. Theonomy is simple (the Bible is made the sufficient standard for law and politics) and objective (Israel’s theocratic civil law is applied to all nations at all times). Further, for Reformed Christians who feel an attraction to libertarianism, theonomy establishes a clear limitation on state power while avoiding the excesses of moral relativism associated with other forms of libertarianism.
For Christians attracted to theonomy’s congenial qualities it is hard to overcome the notion that ethics is a simple choice between “theonomy and autonomy”. How can any Reformed believer disagree? Yet, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares, “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require (WCF 19:4).” Attempts have been made to reconcile the WCF with a theonomic defense of the “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail”, yet the natural reading of the confessional language seems to emphasize discontinuity. Even R.J. Rushdoony was forced to declare, “at this point, the Confession is guilty of nonsense (Insitutes of Biblical Law, pg. 551).”
Should we conclude that the Reformed Divines were legal positivists and moral relativists? Did the Divines choose autonomy over theonomy? Or, is it possible, that the Reformed tradition offers us a long neglected but confessional alternative? Could the moral law of God serve as a basis for public ethics without degenerating into theonomic radicalism?
The answer, deeply buried beneath the weight of 20th Century anti-scholasticism, is found in the Reformed natural law tradition. Notice what I have not said… I have not said that the answer is found in the enlightenment natural law tradition. This is an important distinction. The Reformed natural law tradition, as expounded by John Calvin, Jerome Zanchius, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Althusius, James Ussher, William Perkins, Samuel Rutherford, and Francis Turretin, is rooted in the objective revelation of God’s moral law in nature and in Scripture.
Recognizing the distorted faculties of fallen man, Reformed theologians viewed the Ten Commandments as a summary of the first principles of the natural law. As such they universally bound all men at all times. On the other hand, the civil laws given to Israel might be rooted in the moral law or they might be rooted in Israel’s peculiar calling as a shadow of God’s greater Son and Servant, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the civil law of Israel is rightly divided between laws of general equity (rooted in the natural law) and laws of particular equity (laws whose eschatological purpose was like that of the ceremonial law). Laws of particular equity have no relevance to nations beyond the Israelite theocracy. On the other hand, laws of general equity are rooted in the moral law of God (the natural law). Such laws are not the natural law itself but an application of the natural law to a peculiar place and time (with its own cultural, economic, political, and historical context). The civil laws of general equity cannot bind other nations with their unique contextual applications. Yet, the civil law can serve as a casebook of natural law precedent while illuminating how God applied His moral precepts to Israel. Applications must be drawn to New Covenant nations only by way of instructive analogy.
Those interested in the Reformed Scholastic approach to natural law should read Jerome Zanchius on natural law and pick up Stephen Grabill’s new book Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. Rooting our ethics in the Reformed tradition, theonomists and their critics may find common ground after all.