I do not fully understand the inner workings of Facebook. When folks tag me on my timeline I get these posts I have to either publish or hide. And when I do so, I end up with a page of stuff going back years. I keep hitting “hide” and then it happens the next time, with more stuff, even older. Maybe someday I will get through it all, but I doubt it.
Anyway, I was just doing the “hide, hide, hide” stuff, currently back in 2017 somewhere, when I ran across an article about theonomy, and as I scanned through it I discovered a huge block quote of…me. Well how about that? You never know what you will dig up when you aren’t even looking for something. Anyway, here’s the quote:
“In regards to the term theonomy, that is a hot button as well for many reasons; partially because there’s so many different definitions of that term and there’s so many different kinds of theonomists; and partly because unfortunately when someone starts talking about these things, you end up getting people very quickly taking sides and building their walls and getting behind their walls and start shooting each other and you get in trouble…. It gets difficult to get folks to calm down and think about it.
[…] Theonomy simply means ‘the law of God’ and the idea that God’s law should be the standard for mankind… and I would think Biblically that would not really be an overly controversial issue but it is for a lot of folks. If… the law of God reflects His holy nature, then you’re going to have a very high view of God’s law and you’re going to basically say that man’s law will reflect God’s creative purposes most closely when it reflects the law that God has revealed to us concerning how men should behave. Obviously at that point the question becomes: ‘how do we differentiate between that which is an abiding moral principle in the law of God and that which specifically had application to the people of Israel? Can anyone in this life come up with the perfect way that would convince everybody that ‘this is how we do this…?’ I don’t know if in this life it is ever going to happen. But I can agree with Greg Bahnsen who said [White is paraphrasing here] ‘just because it is a difficult and challenging task doesn’t mean that we should not be pursuing it.’”
Somehow the mobs did not descend on me at that point in time. Must have been busy doing the mob thing somewhere else? Or maybe 2017 was just such a more peaceful time? Hard to tell. In any case, I really have not changed my view. Anyone who listened to my 38 sermon series on the Holiness Code knows that by many definitions of “theonomy,” I would fit in quite nicely. Very high view of the abiding moral validity of the Mosaic law, its revelation of God’s character, its usefulness as a revelation of God’s intentions for all of human society. But (and here’s the issue), by other definitions, I don’t fit at all, since clearly I identify the penal sanctions as part of the theocratic structure of the people of Israel and incapable of being transported out of that context and that time frame. Of course, even then we can learn from the nature of those penal sanctions, but you simply cannot transport them lock, stock and barrel outside of their original context. So, for some, that not only precludes me, but makes me an “anti-nomian!”
What does this illustrate? First, that the autonomy/theonomy question is quite valid. It only grates on us because we have been so completely inundated by “not under law but under grace” a-contextual citations that we no longer even see the centrality of the law in the moral discussions in the NT. Autonomy is rebellion, theonomy is submission. It really IS that simple.
But, of course, that isn’t really the debate amongst serious Christians. If you can get folks to lay aside all their prejudices and just think clearly for a while, no one is going to say, “Yes, it is much better to allow mankind to figure out the basis of law and ethics without reference to God’s revelation.” Disastrous indeed. So the real issue is how we interpret the Mosaic code, how we understand its own innate and necessary divisions and distinctions, how this is passed down into the prophets and applied, even in the denunciation of external nations, and most importantly, how the Apostles then took that law, which they called good, and made application in the days following the coming of the Holy Spirit and the spreading of the gospel in the Roman Empire. And that, my friends, is tough work–made all the tougher by the constant bent of American evangelicalism especially toward autonomy in all things, moral, ethical, and soteriological (a synergist has a foundational bent toward autonomy and against theonomy).
So, here’s my suggestion. Recognize that many of us inherit a bias against the term theonomy (even my computer underlines it in red!). That bias may come from our synergistic traditions. It may come, as it did for me, from the 1980s when the term was associated with wild-eyed recons running around wanting to stone rebellious children at the city gates (if one could find such a location). It may come from Reformed fundies who are into associationalism—“That guy was a bad guy and he spoke at a conference once with another guy whose daughter married an open theonomist!” Recognize we live in a day where labels carry the mental power that careful, truthful arguments used to carry back in the day when everyone recognized that emotions were not in and of themselves carriers of objective truth.
So, if you ask me, “Are you a theonomist?” I will say “Yes!” and will immediately ask, “Are you an autonomist?” After a few moments of blinking I can then say, “So, you recognize that the creature is insufficient grounds for morals and ethics, that as Christians we recognize God has revealed His will in His law, in the New Covenant that law is written upon our hearts, and is not some radically different law than the one Jeremiah would have known, and that God’s law is just and good and right. So, the real question becomes, do we know that law well enough to tear President Bartlet to shreds in the West Wing Episode and hence make consistent applications in light of the gospel and the church’s mission in the world today?”
Here is the link to my 38 sermon series on the topic, starting six years ago, and here is the link to the West Wing episode I just referenced. May I suggest that any self-respecting Christian needs to be ready to respond to this kind of diatribe with something more than “Well, that’s just OT law for the Jews”? Remember, the Holiness Code also includes “love your neighbor” and “honor the elderly” and “pay the worker his wages,” so we need to do a lot more in-depth thinking than you might think.