December 1, 2020

The Council

Proclaiming the truth to the world.

Pastor Tom Hicks wrote an article on the issue of Theonomy. I am going to share a response from Chris Matthew and Garcia:

Theonomy, in the technical sense, teaches that the underlying principles of Old Covenant judicial laws are the universal moral standard of civil law for all Gentile nations, unless a law is specifically abrogated by the New Testament.

Of course, this “teaching” is nothing more than the confessional witness apropos the issue. In the About section of the site, Tom claims to hold to the 1689 confession as a “faithful summary of biblical teaching.” The confession teaches thusly, “To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.” The contemporary use of the term, “general equity”, referred to the basic principle of equity underlying some casuistic law. The marrow of the law, in other words. And does the general equity in any way pertain to the civil law of nations? It surely must, for what else does it mean to speak of the general equity of the Mosaic civil law? It may indeed have applications beyond the civil sphere (viz., personal, ecclesiastical, and so forth), but this does not, and cannot, negate the primacy of the laws’ essentially civil character.


The basic presupposition of theonomy is that God gave the judicial law to the nation of Israel as a universal law of perfect justice for all nations because it is a perfect reflection of God’s own moral character.

More specifically, the civil law is a perfect reflection of God’s own moral character applied to the temporal affairs of men and the execution of justice by the State. Scripture testifies to this in numerous places, and chiefly in [Deut. 4:5-8].

5. See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 6. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7. For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8. And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?


The first from Tom,

This judicial law, which is based on blood-guilt, only makes sense because the land of Israel is holy. According to the Old Covenant, blood-guilt defiles the land and results in the expulsion of the people. [emphasis mine]

And the second from Scripture,

“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. . .” (Lev. 18:24-28)

As Garcia stated:

First, he claims that the Sinai judicial law is covenantally-bound and gets abolished along with the Sinai covenant. Then he cites “blood guilt” as the justification for the judicial law (“judicial law, which is based on blood-guilt”). Of course, he never cites Lev. 18, which shows that the Canaanites violation of “all” of the laws listed prompted YHWH to judge them and cause them to be “vomited out” of Canaan. Which covenant were the Canaanites and Amorites in again? Which covenant were the Ninevites in? How about Sodom and Gomorrah?


Tom goes on to write,

Theonomy is also consistent with the Old Testament priority hermeneutic of dispensationalism, which teaches that the promises God made for Israel cannot be typologically fulfilled in Christ and the church, but must be literally fulfilled in national Israel.

This is a popular strategy, but in reality, the appeal to typology is toothless. Biblical typology is present throughout Scripture, but it is not some twisted “get out of jail free card.” How, exactly, does the Mosaic civil law find itself fulfilled in Christ? Are our civil crimes atoned for by Christ? When I get flagged by the police for speeding, should I just proudly say, “Oh, sorry to bother you, sir, but Christ has already paid for my speeding offense. Good day!” The idea is straightforwardly incoherent and it fails miserably in light of the understanding that the civil laws teach the just recompense of civil crimes (cf. Heb. 2:2).

The appeal to church discipline is mistaken for much the same reasons. Moreover, it should be noted that an equivalent form of church discipline existed in ancient Israel (viz., separation from the camp), but this did not negate the binding validity of the civil law. A further disanalogy is brought out in the fact that repentance removes punitive acts of church discipline, but the same cannot be said of Mosaic civil penalties (or civil penalties generally, for that matter), and thus the latter cannot be fulfilled in the former, except without some alternative medium of fulfillment (which the author will need to spell out in greater detail).

Tom also objects that theonomic ethics doesn’t operate on the so-called “hermeneutic of New Testament priority.” He proceeds to explain the hermeneutic, “[W]hen the New Testament explains Old Testament passages of Scripture, the New Testament has priority of interpretation over the Old Testament.” And, “If the New Testament says an Old Testament passage has a particular meaning, we should assign that meaning to the Old Testament passage.” Unfortunately for him, this betrays a strong misunderstanding on his part with respect to the hermeneutics of theonomy. Indeed, theonomists will find little to nothing objectionable in this section. In formal terms, the hermeneutical thesis of theonomy itself affirms:

(HT) For all standing laws in the Old Testament, x, we should assume that x is binding today, unless x is rescinded in the New Testament.

If this doesn’t grant the New Testament interpretive priority over the Old, I don’t know what does.

In any case, I’m interested. Where in the New Testament does it say that the civil laws of Moses uniquely bound the nation of Israel? The problem is not that theonomists grant interpretive priority to the Old Testament. The problem is that Tom, and contra-theonomists like him, do not seem to understand Paul’s exhortation that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis mine).

The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New and, similarly, the moral law of the Old Testament is the moral law of the New.

Theonomy does not understand that Gentile nations are not and never were under the Old Covenant . . . the laws peculiar to the Old Covenant do not bind Gentile nations.

This has already been addressed above by Garcia and I.


Gentile nations are under natural law, which is the work of the moral law written on the hearts of all human beings.

Typology? Check.

Natural law? Check.

I mean, don’t contra-theonomists have anything new to bring to the table? Must they regurgitate the same intellectually bankrupt arguments time and time again? Most theonomists seem well familiar with the major contentions raised against theonomy, but I cannot, in all honesty, say the same about most contra-theonomists.

Why, for the record, is the appeal to natural law an inadequate critique of theonomy?

If God’s Old Testament case law ought to be exchanged for God’s natural law, the necessary implication is that God’s natural law somewhere along the line became at odds with – contradicted – God’s Old Testament case law. More specifically, since we know that the Old Testament case law has not been altered, we must conclude that, if any law has changed, it must be natural law. But isn’t natural law, being law, universal and invariant? If so, then why should we believe that it now contradicts Old Testament case law if it didn’t 3,000 years ago? Someone might wish to argue that the outward requirements of the ceremonial law now contradicts the finished work of Christ; so why can’t God’s case law now be at odds with natural law? The answer is that the ceremonial law and the finished work of Christ were not operative at the same time; so the latter may supplant the former without contradiction. In the case of natural law, it was from creation and was operative during the time of Moses. Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that natural law is superior and contrary to the case law today if it was not under Moses.

The simple reality is that natural law does not contradict Old Testament case law; nor were these laws ever functionally equivalent.

Moreover, notice carefully that natural law affirms to all men, at all times and in all places, that every sin against God’s moral law deserves God’s wrath. God’s ministers of justice, however, are not always to punish evildoers to the fullest extent humanly possible. Natural law is known by all men everywhere, but it cannot be justified in any philosophically sound way apart from special revelation. What revelatory authority would one appeal to after all? Accordingly, if the state were to strive to follow natural law with a pure heart with respect to penal sanction (as if that were even possible), all men would be put to death, even for the least of all transgresssions, by unjustified tyrants who are left to employ autonomous and, therefore, arbitrary reasoning. Apart from a theonomic appeal to a law that is self-attesting, the state is left to grasp from its shelf a volume of natural law that does not exist.

What a convoluted way to deny that all kings are to offer homage to the Son.

A recipe for tyranny, indeed. If it’s divorced from the authoritative testimony of Scripture, anyone can justify anything with an appeal to natural law. Who’s to say otherwise, eh?

Tom attempts to demonstrate this line of thought by contending that God judged the Gentile nations for violating, essentially, the Decalogue ─ as opposed to the case laws, I take it. The fact of the matter, however, is that the prophets, acting under God’s direction, judged pagan nations for slave trade (Amos 1:6; cf. Exo. 21:16; Deut. 24:7), witchcraft (Nab. 3:4; cf. Exo. 22:18; Lev. 19:21), loan pledge abuse (Hab. 2:6; cf. Exo. 22:25-27; Deut. 24:6f), and so forth. The notion that only the Decalogue binds nations beyond ancient Israel is seriously untenable. Rushdoony aptly illustrates that the case laws follow from the Decalogue in his Institutes of Biblical Law, volume 1.

Tom quotes Richard Barcellos thusly, “The New Testament clearly abrogates the whole Old Covenant, including the Decalogue, as it functioned within the Old Covenant, and yet borrows from its documents as the basis for New Covenant ethics. . .“ Barcellos presents a picture whereby the writers of the New Testament essentially start from scratch (norm), only quoting certain normative passages in the Old Testament for expediency’s sake (exceptions).

But this does not comport with the practice of the New Testament writers. In 1 Tim. 5:18, Paul writes, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.'”And in 1 Cor. 9:9, he writes again to the church at Corinth, “It is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” From where does that quotation come? From Deuteronomy 25:4. Paul does not present these applications as aberrant exceptions to the norm. He expects his readers to know and apply the law of God. He exhorts them by way of reminder, not selective reiteration.


Tom writes,

It’s impossible to separate Israel’s judicial law from the land of Canaan. The Old Covenant law was given to the Old Covenant people, who were to keep the law in the Old Covenant land. Deuteronomy 4:14 says, “And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statues and rules that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.”

Garcia and I have already dispensed with this argument on biblical grounds (see above). What’s embarrassing, though, is the incredibly poor attempt at exegesis. Tom cites Dt. 4:14 to support his position that Mosaic civil law is somehow inseparable from the promised land of Canaan, but he appears to gloss over a salient logical blunder. His argument proceeds thusly,

P1. If one belongs to the covenant community of ancient Israel and lives in the inherited land of Canaan, one is obliged to follow the statutes of the Lord.
P2. One does not belong to the covenant community of ancient Israel and live in the inherited land of Canaan.
C. Thus, one is not obliged to follow the statutes of the Lord.

For the record, (P2) refers to individuals living today. Both premises of the argument are uncontroversially true. The elementary blunder consists in the fact that the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. The argument fallaciously denies the antecedent, to be more specific. Consider a parallel argument:

P1′. If it’s raining, the road is wet.
P2′. It’s not raining.
C’. The road is not wet.

C’ does not follow from P1′ and P2′. It’s possible that the road is wet for reasons other than atmospheric precipitation (say, an eccentric neighbour directed his garden house at the road). Similarly, one can be (and is) obliged to follow the statutes of the Lord (including the civil provisions) for reasons other than what’s described in P1. Indeed, to assume that there is no other reason is just to beg the question against theonomy.

To add insult to injury, the conclusion is defeated by biblical considerations. This applies even if Tom finds some convoluted way to reformulate the argument. David desired to speak God’s law before the Gentile kings (Ps. 119:46, cf. 2:9) and declared that God chastens the nations out of His law (Psalm 94:10, 12). Were not the Canaanites judged for its breach (Lev. 18:24-27; Deut. 12:29-31)? By it are not all the wicked condemned (Psa. 119:118-119; Rom. 3:19)?

It’s not pleasant to be on the wrong side of logic and Scripture.


Tom goes on,

While there is certainly an element of perpetual moral law (general equity, “do not murder”) in the law of the parapet, the law itself could only be practiced in the land of Canaan, which is the case for all Old Covenant judicial law.

What exactly does this mean? Suppose I have a flat roof, one which my relatives and neighbours entertain themselves on. (In fact, this is precisely the case with my grandmother’s house in India!) On the one hand, Tom admits that there is an “element of perpetual moral law” tied to this case law. I am thus obliged to maintain an appropriate parapet or railing around the boundaries of the roof. But on the other hand, Tom wants to say that the “law itself could only be practiced in the land of Canaan.” Uhm. What exactly does Tom expect me to do? Do I practice the law or not? We’re bereft of a coherent answer.

We’re bereft of a coherent answer because, as is the case with most contra-theonomists, Tom fails to acknowledge that the case laws are ethical in character ─ even if they are formulated with contemporary cultural trappings in mind. In revealing His law on Sinai, God dealt with real people in a real society facing real human problems. He compassionately did not want the children of Abraham to return to the aeon of slavery ─ this time, tyrannous slavery mutually imposed. Lest everyone be a Pharaoh in their own eyes, God decreed laws and statutes that unfailingly exemplify wisdom and righteousness (cf. Dt. 4:5-8). God exhorted them to live according to the Torah (literally, “instruction”, “teaching”, or “way of life”). Indeed, we read that God’s law is perfect (Ps. 19:7). Doesn’t that make you excited? We have a perfect law on our hands.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Am. 5:24). Justice, properly defined, is the application of God’s law without passion or prejudice. As Christians, we should be concerned with the application of God’s law (including the case laws) to our areas of vocation and influence ─ we, too, are real people in a real society facing real human problems. Let us not allow the protestations of contra-theonomists who, as we have seen, do not properly account for the perfect wisdom of God’s case laws (not just the Decalogue) to demotivate us with respect to the pursuit of justice ─ that is, justice in all its fulness.

Of course, although God’s law is perfect, our application of God’s law on this side of the eschaton will be ultimately imperfect. As Bahnsen noted, “[W]e live in a fallen world where adherents of any and every political philosophy (including attempted biblical ones) will err in carrying out their ideals. That being the case, it only makes sense to err on the side of the angels, starting with the best (indeed, infallible) ideals available to men.” It would be absurd for someone to resign himself to poison just because medical doctors occasionally make mistakes with prescription drugs.