Regarding Theonomy: An Essay Of Concern -- By: Douglas E. Chismar

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 27:3 (Sep 1984)
Article: Regarding Theonomy: An Essay Of Concern
Author: Douglas E. Chismar

Regarding Theonomy: An Essay Of Concern

Douglas E. Chismar

David A. Rausch*

In recent years the word “theonomy” has become prevalent in discussions among evangelical theologians. A new group has come on the scene, the Christian Reconstruction movement, whose members view themselves as the defenders of theonomy. This movement, however, has been followed by controversy on campuses throughout the United States, and ad hominem argument has abounded on all sides. In a less frenzied fashion we would like to examine some of the main premises of the theonomic viewpoint in an effort to exhibit some of its undesirable implications while expressing our concern.

The term “theonomy” lends itself to two interpretations. Both are employed by theonomists. “Theonomy” in the general sense means a system of ethics founded on God’s revelation, as opposed to “autonomy” (self-law) or “heteronomy” (sociological law). Most Christian ethicists have claimed to be theonomists in this sense; John Murray, Helmut Thielicke, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich are examples.

A more narrow or specific interpretation of theonomy is that which holds to “the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail.”1 The entire Bible “in its far-reaching details” is to be the source of ethics. To cite a leading theonomist: “The Christian is obligated to keep the whole law of God as a pattern of sanctification and… this law is to be enforced by the civil magistrate where and how the stipulations of God so designate.2 This thesis is more specific in that it makes assertions as to how God’s revelation is to be handled as a source of ethics and assertions concerning the means by which God’s revelation is to be propagated in society. It is this thesis that is the source of present controversy.

In the December 1981 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Greg Bahnsen put forward a philosophical argument for the theonomic approach based on the doctrine of God’s immutability (unchangeable nature).3 Non-theonomic approaches to ethics, according to Bahnsen, are based on the changing beliefs, values and whims of humans. Thus they often fall into arbitrariness, tribalism, relativism and trendiness. Only a foundation for moral authority and truth based on the absolute revealed will of God (a divine command theory) avoids contamination by these passing fancies of human society. But what, asks

*Douglas Chismar is chairman of the department of philosophy at Ashland College in Ohio, and David Rausch is professor of Church history and Judaic studies at Ashland Col...

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