Theonomy

Our church lately has had a discussion about Theonomy. What is Theonomy? The Greek words are Theos and Nomos. The former is translated “God” and the latter is translated “Law”. Therefore Theonomy directly means “The Law of God”.

Theonomy isn’t simply merely an informational subject, defining what God’s law was and is. It centers mostly around a debate regarding what’s to be done with the Law. Should we individually obey the very letter of the Mosaic Law? Are we comletely freed from the Law such that we don’t have to bother with it? Should we expect the United States of America (or whatever country you happen to be a citizen of) to have laws that directly reflect the Mosaic Law?

The discussion is not a simple one, and one of the central texts for our discussion was Matthew 5:17ff:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This is a pretty stark passage and contains a very strong warning. Still, despite this passage there are still those on both sides of the fence. There are those who say the Law has no bearing on our lives whatsoever. There are those who say that the Law ought to be directly applied as it was in Moses’ day. And, of course, there’s a whole spectrum in between.

I don’t pretend to be an authority on this subject. I don’t expect anyone to think I have anywhere near exhaustive knowledge on it, but I do present some bullet point observations I have on the subject that might be relevant.

  1. God is just. His Law is Just and good. I think most of us fail to think like this when we first begin to think about the Law. I catch myself thinking wrongly in this regard. I look at the Law as oppressive and harsh. But keep in mind that God is perfect and just. Therefore his Law is just. That’s the end of it. There is no injustice in His Law. So in that light, why shouldn’t we want to be under His law?

    He created us with a purpose and His Law is the best way of knowing how to fulfill that purpose. Furthermore, as John Calvin said, nothing pleases God more than obedience. Samuel said as much to King Saul when he said “To obey is better than sacrifice”

  2. The Mosaic Law does not equal God’s Law. Let me say this another way so I’m not being misunderstood. The Mosaic Law was a specific expression of God’s universal moral Law given at a specific time in History to a specific ethnic group of people occupying a specific area of the world in a specific cultural and political context for a specific set of specific purposes. I go back to the first part of that definition. It is an “expression of God’s universal moral law”. Can morality be culturally defined. Absolutely! In what way? In the way that there are universal moral principals that are always true and absolute no matter what culture, but the specific application of those moral laws will be different in different cultures – especially if the purpose for enacting them is different.

    A discussion of what we are to do with the Law of Moses cannot be taken seriously if we don’t mention some of those specific purposes of that Law that are no longer needed. God was setting up a national and ethnic people on this earth who would be His visible chosen people who would be a nation set apart for him, through which – and here’s the vital part – through which he would bring the Christ. Christ has already come. I dare not say too much more on this vein, because I could easily digress into eschatology.

    The point simply is that it is hermeneutically irresponsible to look at the Law of Moses without paying attention to the cultural and historical context – much in the same way it would be hermeneutically irresponsible to interpret Paul’s comments about head coverings in 1 Corinthians without paying attention to the cultural and historical context. But we must at the very lease see the Law of Moses for what it is: the most thorough example of an application of the principals of God’s universal moral Law to a cultural and historical context we have, and therefore the most valuable resource we have for divining those principals.

  3. Taking Matthew 5:17 to mean that Moses’s law is literally and fully in effect might ignore the word fulfill. Much like I think it’s hermeneutically irresponsible to ignore the Mosaic Law’s historical and cultural context and purpose, I think it’s irresponsible to ignore half of this “proof text”. Jesus says he did not abolish the Law. True. He fulfilled it. We must figure out what that word fullfill means in this context. Is it at all plausible that he fulfilled it to such a degree that it’s no longer relevant at all? I don’t believe so, for the immediate context suggests otherwise. However it does remind us of the overarching purpose of the Mosaic Law, namely as St. Paul said in Romans 10:4 “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Or as the First Catechism said, “Christ obeyed the whole law for his people, and then suffered the punishment due for their sins.”

This is an area of danger for hermeneutics. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. There is a tension and a tight rope here that we must walk. On the one hand, Christ is our fulfillment. He is our righteousness. In him, and by faith in Him, we have pleased God. However, the Law is not “abolished”, meaning – I believe – that the principals of the law that represent the universal moral law of God are very relevant, and if we’re serious about living a lifestyle of worship toward God, we ought to be intentional about following his Law as closely as possible.

  • We live in the United States of America. Or at least I do, and so I’m going to be speaking more directly from an American perspective here. Sorry to all my international readers. Here we now come to the political issue. I make no effort whatsoever to hide the fact that I’m a died in the wool libertarian. I believe that governments have been shown through history to do more harm than good, and that a good government that is truly interested in real justice will leave people alone as much as possible. I also believe that over history, whenever government has gotten in the business of prescribing religion, it has almost always prescribed corrupt religion. It began with Ahab and has continued to this day.

    Therefore I believe that since God is interested in people’s hearts, and that no amount of legislating morality can change the heart (St. Paul’s treatise on the Law in Romans makes this clear), it is not the job of the government to look after people’s spiritual well being. I believe the government is best served by promoting the common welfare and ensuring domestic tranquility so that the church can do it’s job and nobody is standing in the way of the Holy Spirit doing his.

    Furthermore, this country was founded firmly on the issue of religious freedom, and I believe it is inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other founding documents to attempt to implement the Mosaic Law as our Law. Period. I forsee an objection, however. You may rebut that there is strong evidence that the founding fathers did rely heavily on Scripture and the Mosaic Law in founding the basic laws of this land. I’m not going to go into this one in detail. I’m just going to give a simple cop out answer that says this: even though we are a nation of freedom – particularly in the religious realm – we are still not an anarchist nation. I should probably have been clear in my definition of Libertarian. I’m not an anarchist. There are some people, both libertarians and not who think Libertarian means Anarchist. I believe that to be false. We are not an anarchy. We are a peaceful society, and any such peaceful society must be governed by laws, and guess where those laws that govern all free societies come from? The universal law of God. That’s my cop out answer.

    Nevertheless, without fundamentally altering the foundation of this country, we cannot legislate the Law of Moses and then proclaim religious freedom. America is not the kingdom of God. It is just a secular land in which many Christians have enjoyed great freedom to thrive. Rather than voting for politicians who would legislate a more restrictive form of law – even if is more directly lines up with the Law of Moses – I think we are better served by voting for someone who will first and foremost support the things that make this a free and secure land, so that in it we may have the freedom to obey the Law of God in our own hearts first – individually – and next in our families and churches corporately, that our light may shine before men.

Ok. Maybe this wasn’t as brief as I wanted. And certainly it wasn’t exhaustive, as I said it wouldn’t be. I’m certain there are weaknesses in my observations and arguments. I’m certain many would love to tear me apart on it. My simple conclusion is this. If you desire to worship God in spirit and in truth, then obey His law. What does this look like? Keep the Law of Moses? Don’t eat pork? No. It’s much harder than that for us. We must apply good hermeneutics.

There have been mountains of books written on hermeneutics, so this is definitely not exhaustive, but let me give you a simple four step approach.

  1. What did this passage mean to the original audience. In that culture. At that time. What did they understand it to mean. What was it commanding of them. Etc.
  2. How is Christ the fulfillment of this command?
  3. What is the timeless and universal principal that would apply in every context no matter who, what, when or where?
  4. How can I apply those universal principals into my context

Four simple steps, but very very hard to do sometimes. Have fun, and remember, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps. 19:7a). If you truly believe that, then it should be a joy to you to search and fulfill God’s Law. I hope this has been enlightening, challenging or encouraging to someone. May it be to the praise of God’s glory.

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3 thoughts on “Theonomy

  1. Great post! I was thinking early on in reading that I’d have to bring up Romans, but you mentioned it a little over halfway through. Well thought out. Wish more people would give this a thought instead of trying to vote for whomever they think is going to make everyone else believe what they believe.

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