Putting The Law On Trial – The Case Against Theonomy

Some theologians like to say, “The Bible is not written to us, but it is written for us.” This is a useful concept in exegesis. This emerges as we are trying to understand the relationship between law and grace. It is typically thought in evangelical circles that the laws of the torah represent the old way, but Jesus pointed a better way forward. On the other hand, there are some Christians known as theonomists. A theonomist is somebody who believes that the moral precepts of the Law of Moses are still in tact and that Christians are ethically bound to them. We can make the case against theonomy by putting the law on trial.

I should first note that many Christians have an incorrect view of the Torah. Some would view it is restrictive and legalistic. But we should remember that God himself wrote the Law. There is a distinction to make before proceeding. There is a difference between the Law and how tradition interpreted the law. If rabbinical Judaism later made the Law into legalistic rules, that is irrelevant to what the Law truly is. But even though it was written by God, that does not mean that the moral commandments are applicable to today’s Christians.

Updating The Law

Some philosophers make a distinction between absolute moral values and objective moral values. An absolute moral value is a moral proposition that is universally true in every situation. Those who took this position might say that “You shall not lie,” has absolutely no exceptions. But those who believe in objective moral values might say that “You shall not lie,” has certain exceptions. The propositions are certainly true and binding. But they would change or have some flexibility under extreme circumstances.

This is sort of what we see in the ancient world. As God is relating with his people, he recognizes that some moral precepts are appropriate even though they would be inappropriate in later cultures. Sometimes his moral guidelines are a response to the hard hearts of his people. In the case of divorce, Jesus says that it was allowed “because of your hardness of heart.” So what we have in Matthew 19:8 is an example of a moral commandment in the Torah that was not part of God’s perfect standard. It was a condescension. Divorce was part of the Law because it was appropriate for early cultures and inappropriate for later cultures.

That is obviously not the only time that Jesus corrected the Law. In the famous Sermon On The Mount, we see several “You have heard it said, but I tell you,” statements. We should not think that Jesus was expanding on or exegeting the Law. His principles explicitly and directly contradict it. Think about the following examples.

Matthew 5:31-32/Deuteronomy 24:1
You have heard it said: “Give your wife a certificate of divorce.”
But I tell you: “Divorce is adultery.”

Matthew 5:33-34/Ecclesiastes 5:4-8
You have heard it said: “Keep your vows to the Lord.”
But I tell you: “Make no vows.”

Matthew 5:38-39/Exodus 21:24
You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye.”
But I tell you: “Do not resist an evil person.”

“Cut her hands off.”

There is an odd passage in Deuteronomy 25:11-12 that raises all sorts of questions. It outlines a specific crime and offers a punishment. If there are two men brawling, and one man’s wife intervenes, kicking the other man in the groin, she will need to be punished. The text specifically says, “Cut her hands off. Show her no pity.” Some puzzled interpreters have suggested that she was so filled with lust that she grabbed the mans groin as a sexual act, and that was what she was being punished for. But that makes little sense – why would a woman sexually assault a man while he was brawling with her husband? That is a terribly unnatural way to read the passage.

The best way to understand it is to say that it is saying that she intervened with a fight and struck the other man in the groin. For protecting her husband, her hands should be cut off. The theonomist might ask themselves whether this law should be applicable today. Some might bite the bullet and say that it absolutely should, but they should still feel a bit of discomfort in affirming that.

On the other hand, there is a way of understanding this in the ancient world. There is a famous Code of Hammurappi deriving from the ancient Near East containing many parallels with Deuteronomy. A significant difference is that Deuteronomy offers a far superior picture of human value. 25:11 is the sole example of mutilation as a punishment. But it is still there. Many point out that it very closely parallels the Code of Hammurappi. Hammurappi illustrates precisely the same story but with a much harsher punishment. Interestingly, Deuteronomy improves upon other cultures. This would simply be an example of a law that is relevant in the culture. It improves upon the culture even if it is not perfect. As Jesus reminded us, there are some aspects of the Torah that are not perfect; they are culturally bound.

Capital Punishment Was The Only Real Solution

If you have spent much time browsing the Torah, you will notice that the death penalty plays a significant role. When somebody committed a crime, the main options for punishment were slavery and death (with mutilation playing a very insignificant role). This would obviously be another culturally bound punishment, because today there are other options that should be preferred.

If a prosperous society is desired, one has to realize that people are resources that contribute something to the economy. It is better to rehabilitate criminals so that they are productive members of society. One should prefer this to killing them. But in the ancient world, that really was not an option. There were not enough people with the means to buy slaves and there was no established prison system.

I think there are far too many people in prison, and obviously we do not relish the idea of putting a man in a cage. People do not really need to be behind bars for non-violent offenses. But the prison system is a societal resource that improves upon capital punishment. If there were a comparable prison system in the ancient world, we would probably not see so many examples of capital punishment (note – a dungeon is not a prison system). Removing people from society would not really be an option without the death penalty. Since it is an option today, our laws are adjusted to account for that. So we can see again how the laws of the Torah would be moral in the ancient world even if they are not applicable today.

A History of Exile

Many of the letters in the New Testament were intended for a specific church to address a specific occasion. But Peter’s first letter was slightly different. He was writing to scattered exiles who were being persecuted for their faith. He writes in 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh.” They were “exiles of the Dispersion.”

Interestingly, many commentators (such as the authors of the Reformation Study Bible) note that this letter is written to Jew and Gentile alike. Both Jews and Gentiles are thought to be exiles and members of the Dispersion. This is odd because the Dispersion typically only referred to the Jews. All Christians, then, are exiles and sojourners. This is applicable to the modern situation as well.

The reason that I find this significant is that historically, a thenomic state has never emerged. There have certainly been church-states, but they would be a far cry from what we would think of as theonomy. If Peter meant to express that we were exiles from the church-state, the question would have to be whether we would expect God to establish a church-state. If that is the normative practice of the Christian church, then where is it, and why has the church been completely unable to fulfill its full expression for two-thousand years?

Did Jesus Teach Theonomy?

Our religious practice is very much defined by the life and teachings of Christ. But it can be a little confusing because as a Jew, Christ’s life and teaching was wrapped up in the Torah. His teachings should also extend to modern believers. Jesus told his disciples in the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). An aspect of discipleship is teaching people what Jesus commanded. But if Jesus commanded the Law, that would seem to blur the lines between covenants and embolden the case for theonomy.

But I do not think we should be so confident that Christ taught theonomy in the same sense. We have already seen that Christ adapted the Law to the contemporary context since they would not make as much sense as they did in an ancient context. So when we ask, “What did Christ command?” I think the correct answer is “A mixture of things.” Since Christ himself inspired the writing of the Torah, he had the authority to update the laws when they were no longer relevant. Have you not read, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”?

As long as we are speaking of the Sabbath, I would have to wonder how far we can extend the thenomic principle. Since Christ commanded believers to set apart a day of rest as holy, that day being Saturday, we should recognize that there are very few Christians who actually keep this commandment. We might say that we keep the commandment in another way (namely that entering into the body of Christ, we have entered into a permanent Sabbath rest), but that still is not what Christ meant when he told his disciples to keep the Sabbath. So extending this principle to its logical conclusion, we would have to say that there are no true theonomists.

What Sort of Government Would Christ Favor?

There are some people who say annoying things like, “Christ would have voted for [insert preferred politician].” Still there are others who, in the same vein, suggest that Christ would prefer a theonomy operated by the Church. Most of us know that there was a long-standing theological error that forms the backdrop of the Pharisees’ theology in the New Testament. Namely, the Jews believed that the Messiah would overthrow Rome, sit on the throne of David and usher in the eschatological kingdom. Instead, we have a crucified Messiah ushering in an extended state of exile for the Church.

Interestingly, when Christ was faced with a difficult question, he was not afraid to give an answer that he knew would offend people. He preached what was true even unto his death. When the Pharisees asked who he was, Jesus could have given a cryptic answer. But instead, he told them, “Before Abraham was, I am,” (John 8:58) which led them to pick up stones to execute him. So, when Jesus was asked, “Should we pay taxes to the Romans?” what should we expect if Jesus truly believed theonomy? We should expect him to be direct and proclaim the truth even knowing that people will not like it and it will alert the Romans to him. Instead, he gave what would be a cryptic answer and said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Paul also seemed to endorse a sort of obedience to a secular government in Romans 13. It is exceedingly odd that many interpret this passage in a way that favors theonomy. The Roman government was secular. They were not interested in arresting blasphemers against YHWH. My point is this: if Jesus and Paul were at all concerned about theonomy, why do they never mention it when it comes up? Why is the Church’s authority literally never mentioned or even implied? I do not think that Jesus or Paul preferred a secular government. Christ referred to his kingdom and it is an eschatological kingdom.

“So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” Romans 7:12

Probably the best argument for theonomy is the way that Paul referred to the Law, especially in the book of Romans. He did not have the hatred for the Law that often emerged in evangelical circles. We might hear it said that the Law is oppressive, binding, and puts an unbearable burden on man’s shoulders. But this confuses the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law with the Law itself. Jesus and Paul both loved the Law. But I do not think we can stretch their love of the Law as far as theonomists would like to.

One of the most powerful proclamations is in Romans 7:12. The text reads, “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” Paul goes on to say that he delights in God’s law (v. 22). The Law, according to Paul, has propelled him to continue doing good. But based on the context of this passage, we can probably say that Paul is referring to the Ten Commandments. In verse seven, he specifically recites the commandments.

This would also make sense of other odd things that Paul said of the Law that could cause discomfort among our theonomist friends. Perhaps the most interesting is in 2nd Corinthians 3:7 when Paul referred to the Law as the ministry of death. He then drew a contrast between the ministry of death of and the ministry of the Spirit, arguing that the ministry of the Spirit is far more glorious.

Similarly, Paul says in Galatians 3:24-25, “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” The Law is a guardian. Christ replaced the guardian. He replaced the ministry of death with the ministry of the Spirit.

Putting The Law On Trial: The Case Against Theonomy

When you read a title like Putting The Law On Trial, I anticipate that you will say something like, “By what standard?” What standard could possibly be used to judge the Law? That is same thing that the Pharisees thought. One might argue that this is what brought about the Judaizers, who thought that Christians needed to be circumcised and continue giving sacrifices at the Temple. I am not judging the Law by some standard I conjured up. It is the standard of the Lord Jesus.

Have you not read, “You have heard it said… but I tell you…”?

Recommended Reading:
How Presuppositionalists Suppress The Truth In False Piety
Why I Am A Heretic And You Should Be Too