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Why I Am Not A Theonomist

Theonomy did not exist prior to 1970, according to Gary North, one of the generally recognized founders of the movement[1]. It does however credibly trace its roots to certain strains within English and American Puritanism as well as various offshoots of 20th century neo-Calvinism associated generally with Abraham Kuyper, though Kuyper himself was no theonomist. John Frame defines theonomy as:

“a school of thought within Reformed theology which prefers literal, specific, and detailed applications of Mosaic civil laws to modern civil government.”[2]

Its best-known exponents would include Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, RJ Rushdoony, and in Canada, The Ezra Institute and its primary author and speaker, Joe Boot.

In today’s increasingly fractured post-evangelical ecosystem, few people identify wholesale with any particular theory or movement, therefore if you feel that the following observations and critiques do not fairly apply to you, or to your favourite pastor then they are probably not intended to. My intention is to focus on the movement as a whole and to direct my comments towards the most prominent and influential spokespersons of it, particularly as I have encountered them.

As the title above clearly indicates, I pretend to speak for no one other than myself.

While I believe that many if not most, of the people involved with this movement are truly regenerate, spirit-filled, brothers and sisters in Christ, I don’t find their arguments compelling for the following 5 reasons:

1. I don’t believe that the Mosaic Civil Law is still in effect

As stated above, what distinguishes theonomists from the vast majority of their Reformed cousins is their belief that the civil laws associated with the Sinai Covenant are still in effect and should be applied to other peoples and nations.

Presbyterians, holding to The Westminster Confession, tend to distinguish between the moral, ceremonial and civil aspects of the Mosaic Law. The Confession speaks of the moral law as “a perfect rule of righteousness” as particularly expressed in the 10 commandments given by God to Israel as part of the Sinai Covenant. It goes on to say:

“Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament. 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.”[3]

Thus confessional Presbyterianism understands the moral law as eternal, though it may be applied differently in other cultural contexts, and they understand the ceremonial and the civil aspects of the law to have expired.

Baptists likewise, whether they adopt the same 3 fold division of the Law or not, agree entirely with their Presbyterian cousins as to the provisional nature of the Mosaic Civil Law. Thomas R. Schreiner, for example, an evangelical Baptist theologian, says here:

“The notion that the civil laws for Israel should continue to function as the rules for nation-states today represents a fundamental misreading of the Scriptures.”[4]

Jesus himself seemed to understand the function of the Law as provisional in nature. He said in Matthew 11:

“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matthew 11:13 ESV)

Jesus understood John the Baptist as representing the end of the Old Testament era. John opened the door for Jesus and when Jesus walked through it, the world was forever changed. When Jesus died on the cross a whole new world was born and new worlds require new laws. The Apostle to the Hebrews understood that very clearly. He said:

“For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” (Hebrews 7:12 ESV)

Likewise, the Apostle Paul taught that the Mosaic Law had a specific purpose and a specific expiration:

“It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (Galatians 3:19 ESV)

The Law of Moses was added because of transgression. It served as a temporary restraining measure until the coming of Christ. But as soon as Christ had come and as soon as his work had been accomplished the function of the Mosaic Law expired. The Apostle Paul made that point in Romans 10:4:

“Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 ESV)

That was a point greatly appreciated by the Magisterial Reformers. Luther was prepared to acknowledge the Mosaic Law as a tutor and a temporary governor, but certainly not as a Master. Preaching on Galatians 4:2 he said:

“Tutors and governors are they which bring up the heir, and so rule him and order his goods that he neither waste his inheritance by riotous living, nor his goods perish or be otherwise consumed. They permit him not to use his goods at this own will or pleasure, but suffer him to enjoy them as they shall be needful and profitable to him. They keep him at home, and instruct him whereby he may long and comfortably enjoy his inheritance: but as soon as he arrives at the years of discretion and judgment, it can not but be grievous to him to live in subjection to the commands and will of another.”[5]

While Luther recognized the need and the function of the Law in the infancy of God’s covenant people, he saw the role of the Mosaic Law as ceasing in its entirety at the coming of Christ into the world and on a personal level, at the coming of Christ by his Spirit into the heart of the new believer. Commenting on this reality, in the same sermon, Luther remarked:

“Hereby they receive that covenant of the eternal blessing and the Holy Ghost which renews the heart: whereby they are delighted with the law, and hate sin; and are willing and ready to do those things which are good. This is the time appointed by the Father, when the heir must no longer remain a servant, but a son; being led by a free spirit, he is no more kept in subjection under tutors and governors after the manner of a servant”[6]

Luther would go on to write elsewhere:

“Here the law of Moses has its place. It is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel.”[7]

The Law of Moses was temporary and it was given specifically to the people of Israel. The Mosaic Law as an integrated covenant has now expired.

Of course, that isn’t to say that the essence or substance of morality has changed. The 10 Commandments were a particular covenantal expression of the unchanging holiness of God. The morality behind the 10 Commandments is thus eternal and immutable, but the Law of Moses as an integrated covenant expired with the life and death of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul laboured to make that point in Romans 7:

“Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. 4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:1–4 ESV)

With the death of Jesus Christ the Mosaic Covenant expired for all people, everywhere. That is why at the Last Supper Jesus said:

“This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20 ESV)

So the Mosaic Covenant is no more. The ceremonial, the civil and the moral – all have expired as an integrated covenant made with a specific people at a particular moment in time. But that isn’t to say that the Law has no further relevance to the Christian. Of course it does!! Paul anticipated some confusion on this point, and perhaps, some unfair accusation. In Romans 6:15 he said:

“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:15–18 ESV)

Paul’s whole point is that as mature believers, with new hearts and filled with the Holy Spirit, we no longer require an external covenant of law. True believers increasingly want to do that which is right. They become “obedient from the heart”. Thus the moral behavior of the Christian parallels the guidance and direction of the Law. The believer cherishes the Law as an expression of God’s character and as a beloved guide. But she does not submit to it as a Master. Her Master now is Christ and she motivated and led by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

“and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17 ESV)

That appears to be the meat and marrow of New Testament thinking. It certainly was understood as such by the Magisterial Reformers. John Calvin said:

“The ceremonial law of the Jews was a tutelage by which the Lord was pleased to exercise, as it were, the childhood of that people, until the fulness of the time should come when he was fully to manifest his wisdom to the world, and exhibit the reality of those things which were then adumbrated by figures, (Gal. 3:24; 4:4). The judicial law, given them as a kind of polity, delivered certain forms of equity and justice, by which they might live together innocently and quietly. And as that exercise in ceremonies properly pertained to the doctrine of piety, inasmuch as it kept the Jewish Church in the worship and religion of God, yet was still distinguishable from piety itself, so the judicial form, though it looked only to the best method of preserving that charity which is enjoined by the eternal law of God, was still something distinct from the precept of love itself.”[8]

Calvin saw the civil law in precisely the same light as the ceremonial:

“Therefore, as ceremonies might be abrogated without at all interfering with piety, so also, when these judicial arrangements are removed, the duties and precepts of charity can still remain perpetual.”[9]

We may still find great wisdom and guidance in the Sinai Covenant but it cannot be considered binding on peoples and nations today. That leads to a second, and related consideration:

2. I don’t believe that the Israelite theocracy was intended as a universal model for civil government

As stated above, theonomists believe that the civil law in the Sinai covenant remains in some sense binding on people and nations today and therefore, they extend that to suggest that the theocratic kingdom of ancient Israel ought to stand as an abiding norm and standard for all human government.

But is that the case?

The majority of Reformed Bible scholars understand the theocracy of Israel not as a model for modern government but rather as an anticipation of the eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ. Meaning that the relevance of the Davidic narrative is more illustrative than legislative. Reformed Bible scholars for example might speak of King David as being like an arrow shot at the sun; he points us in the direction of Jesus Christ before ultimately falling tragically and typically short. David, and Solomon to a lesser degree, are types of Christ and their kingdom an anticipation of the eternal reign of Christ. Just as the Queen of Sheba came, bearing gifts, to bask in the wonders of Solomon’s earthly kingdom, so too the eternal city of Christ shall draw all the nations into its glorious light. Revelation 21:23-26 says:

“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” (Revelation 21:23–26 ESV)

Thus theocratic Israel functions as an imperfect anticipation of the eternal kingdom – that has long been the traditional Protestant understanding of its role and function within the canon.

Theonomists however, see in theocratic Israel a model and a rule to be adopted by all civil governments everywhere. Calvin was in no way sympathetic to this viewpoint. He said:

“For there are some who deny that any commonwealth is rightly framed which neglects the law of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations. How perilous and seditious these views are, let others see: for me it is enough to demonstrate that they are stupid and false.”[10]

Even in the Old Testament it was understood that the Mosaic Law was never intended to be binding on the people of other nations. A clear distinction was made between the obligations lying upon the Israelites as parties to the covenant, and the nations who definitively were not:

“You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.”  (Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV)

The Law of Moses was a gift from God but it was not conceived of as binding upon the governance and practice of other nations beyond illustrating and commending the principles and benefits of general equity. The Westminster Confession, referred to above, makes that point explicitly in Chapter 19, paragraph 4:

“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.”[11]

W. Bradford Littlejohn says here:

“The general norm of political rule is natural revelation and natural law, not Scripture, although Scripture, as a remedy to our fallenness, restates many of the principles of natural law, along with instructive examples of good and bad government.”[12]

The Mosaic Law was a guide and tutor, and theocratic Israel was an illustration and prophetic type, but neither is formally binding upon modern civil governments. Thomas Schreiner says here:

“The laws and penalties of an ancient agricultural society, where the church and state were one, should not necessarily be ours today. How we apply the moral norms of Scripture to political life is a matter of wisdom and prudence and cannot be resolved simply by pointing to Old Testament Israel.”[13]

A failure to understand the role of theocratic Israel, and a corresponding failure to understand the reality and function of natural law, forces the theonomist into a seemingly impossible struggle with civil government. Instead of trying to convert and disciple neighbours, the theonomist feels compelled to convert and disciple nations, a shift that forces him into constant culture war and potentially, outright civil disobedience.

Carl Trueman advocates for the recovery of natural law as a helpful category, at the end of his book The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self. He says:

“It is unlikely that an individual pastor is going to be able to shape a Supreme Court ruling on abortion (though he should certainly try as he is able), but he is very likely to be confronted with congregants asking questions about matters from surrogacy to transgenderism. And in such circumstances, a good grasp of the biblical position on natural law and the order of the created world will prove invaluable.”[14]

Understanding which standards apply to which people and parties would help to lower tensions and might serve to keep the attention of the everyday Christian on the mission and the mandate he was assigned.

Thirdly, I am not a theonomist because:

3. I am not a Postmillennialist

For most of the last century evangelicalism in North America has been dominated by dispensational and premillennial views. The emergence of theonomy has been the occasion of a substantial shift in that eschatological framework. As Richard John Neuhaus explains:

“A critically important feature of theonomy is that it represents a return to postmillennialism after almost a century of its near-total eclipse.”[15]

Given the general unfamiliarity of most evangelicals with that eschatological viewpoint, it may be useful to provide a basic definition. Wayne Grudem defines postmillennialism this way:

“According to this view, the progress of the gospel and the growth of the church will gradually increase, so that a larger and larger proportion of the world’s population will be Christians. As a result, there will be significant Christian influences on society, society will more and more function according to God’s standards, and gradually a “millennial age” of peace and righteousness will occur on the earth. This “millennium “will last for a long period of time (not necessarily a literal one thousand years), and finally, at the end of this period, Christ will return to earth, believers and unbelievers will be raised, the final judgment will occur, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth. We will then enter into the eternal state.”[16]

Theonomists often identify their embrace of postmillennialism as, in part, a reaction against the excesses and aberrations of premillennial dispensationalism. Speaking of the generation of reformed and evangelical leaders in Canada who first encountered and attempted to resist the incursion of dispensational views in the 19th century, Boot writes stirringly:

“To sit still, purporting to interpret prophecy and waiting for the second advent, was unacceptable to such men. Neither could they accept a view that foresaw Christ returning twice – first to a ‘secret rapture’ of the church, and then a second time to a satanically-ruined history for the slaughter of his enemies with supernatural military power, forcibly setting up a literal world-state from Jerusalem. Such a view seemed to undermine the very essence of the gospel and the power of God manifest at the cross and in the giving of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the task of teaching the nations.”[17]

I confess broad sympathy with Boot and other theonomists at this point. I grew up in a dispensational church and I too found such a pessimistic and escapist view untenable and ultimately incongruent with the warp and woof of Holy Scripture. However, it seems to me that theonomists have pulled themselves out of the ditch on one side of the road only to plant themselves solidly in the ditch on the other side. While I sympathize with the impulse towards Gospel action as opposed to prophetic obsession, I don’t see any indication in the Scriptures that we are to “build the kingdom” or “transform the culture” or “retake the institutions of society”. The job given to us was more modest in its scope and application. Jesus said:

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46–48 ESV)

We are witnesses of these things. Things that Jesus DID – not things that we will DO. The mission of the church is to point at completed things. Jesus things. Gospel things. And the kingdom that arises, arises in ways that are invariably hard to quantify. Jesus told us to expect that. He said:

“The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20–21 ESV)

Jesus said he would give us the kingdom, he never said we would build it. In his teaching on the Final Judgment Jesus said:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Matthew 25:31–36 ESV)

According to Jesus, Christians will come into their possession at the end of the age. There is no promise of cultural or political dominance prior to his return. They are given the kingdom; they receive their inheritance. The message of Jesus is “Come and receive” not “Go out and take!” The Gospel is the Good News about the victory Jesus won. We are witnesses and heralds to that victory, and nothing more. Notice also how the true believers of Christ are identified in the story of the Sheep and the Goats: by their humble service toward the least of these, his brethren on the earth.

The mission of God was accomplished through the person and work of Christ. Our job is to herald it, and to commend it while displaying its power and beauty in our lives.

My own eschatology has settled somewhere between the extreme pessimism and retreatism of my dispensational childhood and the extreme optimism and activism of my theonomistic friends. It is best reflected in the parable of the weeds as told by Jesus in Matthew 13:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Matthew 13:24–30 ESV)

This parable suggests that the world will get better and worse until the end. The kingdom of God will grow and the kingdom of darkness will grow side by side with it and our job is not to wage war, it is merely to witness and to wait.

Jesus made that point explicitly:

the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” (Matthew 13:28–29 ESV)

The problem with taking an activist stance in the world is that you will often find yourself acting against the wrong people. Therefore, let them both grow until the end. D.A. Carson says here that this parable “explains how the kingdom can be present in the world while not yet wiping out all opposition.”[18]

My reading of the Bible suggests that by means of various upheavals, crises and challenges all people in the world will eventually be gathered into two camps: the camp of the Lamb and the camp of the Beast. It is the middle ground that will disappear entirely.

And then the end will come.

In the meantime I have no desire to exercise authority over the entire field. I have my job to do and I expect that culture will emerge of its own somewhat downstream from any evangelistic progress that the Lord is pleased to grant. As such I anticipate living and working side by side with unsaved friends and neighbours until the final harvest.

Fourthly, and not unrelatedly, I am not a theonomist because:

4. I am not an anti-statist

In contrast to the two-kingdoms approach of most Protestants, following Luther and Calvin, theonomists tend to favour the “sphere Sovereignty” language associated with Abraham Kuyper. According to this rubric, there are various spheres of life (family, church, government, etc.), each with their own responsibilities and authority; and particular spheres should not interfere in the sovereignty of other spheres.

In most theonomic models the scope of responsibility given to the state is extraordinarily modest and a great deal of rhetorical energy tends to be directed at pushing the civil government into an ever smaller and smaller sphere. Thus, theonomists are generally categorized as libertarian and anti-statist. Joe Boot owns that classification proudly. He writes:

“A Puritan, theonomic missiology is fundamentally anti-statist because that is the way the Bible is.”[19] (emphasis in the original).

To state the obvious, however, a great number of Reformed writers and thinkers have not understood the Bible as advocating for anti-statism. John Calvin for example was explicitly not anti-statist; in fact Calvin could speak quote expansively about the role and benefit of the state:

“Mankind derives as much benefit from it as it does from bread, water, sun and air, and its dignity is far greater than any of them.”[20]

Calvin was suspicious of those who thought their Christian convictions must place them in perpetual opposition to the civil government. He said:

“There are indeed always some tumultuous spirits who believe that the kingdom of Christ cannot be sufficiently elevated, unless all earthly powers be abolished, and that they cannot enjoy the liberty given by him, except they shake off every yoke of human subjection.”[21]

Luther, likewise was enormously respectful of civil government. He said:

“The temporal sword and government have never been so clearly described or so highly valued as by me.”[22]

If the Bible is anti-statist, as some theonomists boldly claim, it does not appear that the Magisterial Reformers received the memo. Far from being an enemy we ought to antagonize, the Bible positions the civil magistrate as a minister we ought to honour and respect. Romans 13:6 says that:

“the authorities are ministers of God” (Romans 13:6 ESV)

Commenting on the remarkable use here of the Greek word leitourgos, generally reserved for religious officials, Douglas Moo says:

“Paul could not more strongly have shown that civic leaders are, in fact, serving God’s own purposes.”[23]

The anti-statist position of theonomistic scholars and writers serves to incite an attitude of hostility and disrespect toward civil authority that is entirely out of keeping with the Scriptures. The Apostle Paul said:

“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:7 ESV)

While I concede that human authority, unchecked by democratic processes, does incline toward overreach and even tyranny, I don’t find a mandate in Scripture for a perpetually hostile posture towards the state.

Ironically, despite their anti-statist commitments, modern day theonomists appear to be deeply enamoured and invested in the practice of statecraft. T. David Gordon remarks upon this phenomenon:

“Possibly due to their postmillennialism, possibly due to their (understandable) heartbreak over the decline of the West, and possibly for other reasons, they have simply placed statecraft higher on their agenda than it is on other people’s agenda.”[24]

Theonomists will often say that being Reformed is not enough. It is not enough to believe in the right Gospel or to proclaim the right Gospel. These things on their own will not bring about the kingdom of God. We must take manly action! Comparisons are often made to the cowardly generation of Israelites who feared to strap on their swords against the Canaanites and thereby forfeited their inheritance.

Theonomists have a very militaristic and triumphalistic message that currently has wide appeal amongst those formerly and nominally associated with neo-Calvinism. Having become impatient with the slow growth of the kingdom through the traditional means of evangelism, witness and prayer, theonomists have seized upon the opportunity presented in American style democracy for effecting cultural and societal change through the coordinated practice of statecraft.

American evangelicalism has often proven susceptible to this particular temptation. Thomas Kidd, the preeminent historian of American evangelicalism commented recently:

“All but the most hardened evangelical Republican insiders will readily concede that American Christians tend to put too much hope in politics and politicians. Yet we keep doing it.”[25] 

Bradford Littlejohn offers a similar assessment, he says:

“Our engagement with politics should be measured and realistic, recognizing the provisionality of the political order. Perhaps the greatest error of evangelicalism in the past generation has been the temptation to think that more could be achieved through politics than was realistic, and sometimes that more must be achieved through politics than was appropriate.”[26]

While direct assaults upon culture and government may deliver certain short term gains, they tend to result in an erosion of our witness and testimony within the culture over the long haul, a point made powerfully by John Piper in 2017:

“Missionaries will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.”[27]

Piper said that in reference to American missionary work overseas, but the application of that principle to our work and witness here has become increasingly urgent.

Finally, and perhaps most immediately:

5. I have a hard time seeing past all the accusatory rhetoric

Theonomy in North America has generally been associated with pre-suppositional apologetics and has therefore tended to adopt a very confrontational tone, both in terms of its engagement with cultural institutions and also in its interactions with the Reformed community as a whole. This has been a significant factor in the failure of theonomy, thus far, to gain a permanent seat at the Protestant table. John Frame says here:

“People have a hard time seeing the important truths that theonomy communicates; it is hard to learn from someone who is always accusing you of something.”[28] 

Theonomists do not tend to follow the generally accepted rules of polite theological discourse. In critiquing Michael Horton’s position on cultural engagement, Joe Boot, for example, somewhat shockingly, exhibits this tendency toward accusatory rhetoric. He refers to Horton’s argument as “superficial”[29], “unbiblical”[30], “disturbing”[31], “dangerous”[32] and “absurd”[33], despite that it reflects long established Reformed commitments and exegesis. He characterizes anyone holding to the “two-kingdoms” perspective (taught by both Luther and Calvin) as “cultural retreatists”[34] guilty of “dualism”[35] and says that Horton’s understanding of the New Testament is essentially “neo-Marcionite[36]” leading to an unmistakable “antinomian tone”.[37]

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California and the Editor-in-Chief of Modern Reformation magazine.

John Frame’s assessment appears to have been charitably understated.

There is much to appreciate about the theonomistic perspective but for that perspective to gain a hearing in the wider evangelical context theonomists will need to pay better attention to the second half of the Scripture verse from which they draw such compelling inspiration:

“in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV)

It cannot be denied that theonomists are characterized by a sincere desire to honour Christ as Lord. Neither can it be denied that theonomists, as a group, tend to be very well prepared! But it can be argued, and it is often argued, that they have not yet learned to make their defense with gentleness and respect. And until they do they will not likely serve the corrective function within evangelicalism that they likely would otherwise. While I am not, and almost certainly never will be, a theonomist in terms of the total system of beliefs, I do believe that a wider exposure to their passion for the Old Testament and their commitment to evangelism and Christian education could serve as a much-needed tonic against the increasing corruption and confusion of the evangelical movement.

Even still, come Lord Jesus!


Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.

[1] See here:


[3] The Westminster Confession, Chapter XIX, paragraphs III and IV as cited in Creeds Of The Churches, Edited by John H. Leith, Third Edition (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), 214.

[4] Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians And Biblical Law, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2010), 224.

[5] Martin Luther, “The Method and Fruits of Justification” in Treasury of the World’s Great Sermons (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1993), 350.

[6] Martin Luther, “The Method and Fruits of Justification” in Treasury of the World’s Great Sermons (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1993), 351.

[7] Martin Luther, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 35, Word and Sacrament, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (general editor) and E. Theodore Bachman (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 164.

[8]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 3315.

[9]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 3315.

[10]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 3314.

[11] The Westminster Confession, Chapter XIX, paragraph IV.

[12] W. Bradford Littlejohn, The Two Kingdoms: A Guide For The Perplexed (The Davenant Trust, 2017), 81.

[13] Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions, 226.

[14] Carl Trueman, The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 405.

[15] Richard John Neuhaus,

[16] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction To Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1111.

[17] Joe Boot, Mission, 86.

[18] D.A. Carson, Matthew Chapters 13 Through 28 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 317.

[19] Joe Boot, Mission, 271.

[20] John Calvin as cited in Hopfl, 50.

[21]John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Complete), trans. John King, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847), paragraph 80701.

[22] Martin Luther as cited by Andrew Pettegree in Brand Luther, (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 283.

[23] Douglas J. Moo, Romans in The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 423.

[24] T. David Gordon, Critique Of Theonomy; A Taxonomy in Westminster Theological Journal 56 (Spring, 1994): 23-43.


[26] Littlejohn, 86.

[27] John Piper in a sermon I heard live called “Holy Ambition For All The Peoples To Praise Christ. You can find it here:


[29] Joe Boot, Mission, 381.

[30] Joe Boot, Mission, 383.

[31] Joe Boot, Mission, 385.

[32] Joe Boot, Mission, 385.

[33] Joe Boot, Mission, 386.

[34] Joe Boot, Mission, 381.

[35] Joe Boot, Mission, 385.

[36] Joe Boot, Mission, 389. He uses the phrase “latent Marcionism” on page 386.

[37] Joe Boot, Mission, 389.