A Theology of Glory

Theonomy: Bad News for Reformed Baptists Part I

I am a Reformed Baptist. I do not say this to be factional but factual. The doctrine set forth in the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 is what I have found to be most consistent with the teaching of Scripture (I have at least one exception, but that is neither here nor there). I continue to learn from and love many Christians who aren’t in this tradition, but understandably I have a special concern for my fellow Reformed Baptists. Sadly, I have seen more and more of them become theonomists or at least become attracted to theonomist ministries. Sociologically and politically, I understand the appeal, but theologically, I am compelled to warn them of the dangers of Theonomy and its related systems of theology. 

If you are reading this, I assume you are somewhat familiar with what Theonomy is, so I won’t go in much detail introducing it. However, the late Meredith Kline succinctly says of those who hold to Theonomy that “Their special thesis is that the Mosaic law, more or less in its entirety, constitutes a continuing norm for mankind and that it is the duty of the civil magistrate to enforce it, precepts and penalties alike.” (“Old-New Error”).

Theonomy is not an isolated system but has a long pedigree. I use “Theonomy” since that is the popular slogan thrown around lately, but many of the critiques that follow will often be true of the related systems as well as Theonomy specifically. This pedigree includes the Christian Reconstructionist movement and Dominion Theology, and perhaps more controversially, Federal Vision.

Many today who have adopted the slogan of Theonomy have been influenced by its rhetoric without understanding the whole system. Others understand but disagree with parts of the system, but are still attracted by the rhetoric and so call themselves General Equity Theonomists. What this term means exactly depends on the user. However, I think Tom Hicks, who wrote an article called “Is General Equity Theonomy a Confessional and Biblical Doctrine?,” does a good job of going through the history of the term General Equity and showing that its use in the confessions precludes the distinctive contentions of Theonomy altogether (Hicks). It is almost impossible to critique a rhetoric, so I will mostly be critiquing theonomy as a system, but this first post will also interact with the rhetoric as well.

The more I grow in the Reformed and Baptist Faith, the more I discover doctrines and categories that help me think through the issues of life biblically. This is especially true of the issue at hand. In the following posts, I will attempt to critique Theonomy and related systems using these historic Reformed and Reformed Baptist doctrines and categories. You probably don’t have the time to read, nor I the time to write a thorough refutation of Theonomy point by point. Theonomy is a practical doctrine (as opposed to theoretical), so it is easy to be distracted by minutiae when discussing the topic. Consequently, my approach will be to ground us (as Reformed Baptists) in the basics of our faith, rather than try to cover everything. Once grounded, I think Theonomy and its close relatives will appear less attractive than before. 

The first doctrine/category I will use is Martin Luther’s contrast between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. I will seek to show that the eschatological (end-times) view of Theonomy is a theology of glory and not a theology of the cross.

Luther’s Paradoxical Theses at Heidelberg

Soon on the heels of Luther posting his infamous 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle on October 31st, 1517, he posited another 28 theses at the Heidelberg Disputation in late April, 1518. This disputation took place, to put it in modern terms, at the annual convention of the Augustine order, Luther still being a member of the order at the time. Luther entitles these theses “Paradoxes.” In paradoxical fashion, the first thesis states, “The law of God is a salutary rule of life. Nevertheless, it cannot aid man in his search after righteousness; on the contrary, it impedes him” (D’Aubigne, 99). In like fashion, the other 27 theses proceed. 

Of special interest, and where the theologies of glory and of the cross derive their names, thesis 21 says, “An honorary theologian [i.e. a theologian of glory] calls evil good, and good evil; but a theologian of the cross speaks according to truth” (D’Aubigne, 99). Taken alone, this does not shed much light, but let us hear what Luther means by this:

This is clear: He who disregards Christ disregards God hidden in suffering. For this reason that theologian prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are whom the Apostle Paul calls “enemies of the cross of Christ,” [Phil. 3:18] for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and their glory. This is why theologians of glory call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a work good. God can only be found in suffering and the cross. As was said before, the allies of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross, works are torn down and with them the Old Adam, who is constructed by works, is crucified… (qtd. at 1517.org

Martin Luther

Of course, this paradox does not come from Luther’s over fruitful imagination, but, as he says, from the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:1- 4:1. Additionally, and in even starker fashion, Paul states the paradox that is the theology of the cross in 2 Corinthians 4:7-18. This is the famous “jars of clay” passage where Paul heaps paradox upon paradox. You should stop and read it.

Theonomy’s Eschatology is a Theology of Glory

Almost without exception, theonomists have a uniform millennial position. Their millennial position is postmillennialism. This literally refers to the belief that Jesus’ Second Coming comes after the millennium taught in Rev. 20. However, as is common with eschatological positions, it’s a little more complicated than that. Technically, amillennialism also believes Jesus comes back after the millennium, but thinks very differently about what the millennium looks like. 

It is far from my intention to get into the weeds of eschatological debate, so, at the risk of oversimplification, what separates a- and postmillennialism is what each expects regarding the “success” of the gospel towards the end of the age. I say “success,” because this term is very much open to interpretation. Postmillennialism tends to be more “optimistic” about the “success” of the gospel towards the end, amillennialism less so, and premillennialism even less so. Again, this is an oversimplification and greatly depends on how one defines “success.” Nevertheless, this model equips us to examine Theonomy’s peculiar vision for the success of the gospel or kingdom of Christ in this age. 

Some staples of reformed theology include predestination, effectual call, and perseverance of the saints. We get these doctrines from passages like John 6:37-40, among many others, which says in part “All that the Father gives me [Jesus speaking] will come to me… this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day… and I will raise him up on the on the last day.” What believers will be raised to will be a new heavens and new earth where “the dwelling place of God is with man,” etc. (Rev. 21:1-8). Furthermore, our lowly bodies will be made like Christ’s glorious resurrected body (Phil. 3:21). To me, this sounds like the acme of success, but reconstructionists in general and theonomists in particular want something more and demand earthly success too. 

The father of Christian Reconstructionism and Theonomy, R. J. Rushdoony, critiquing a straw-man version of amillennialism says, 

There is no such thing as a millennium or a triumph of Christ and His Kingdom in history [for amillennialists]. The role of the saints is at best to grin and bear it, and more likely to be victims and martyrs. The world will go from bad to worse in the pessimistic viewpoint. The Christian must retreat from the world of action in the realization that there is no hope for this world, no world-wide victory of Christ’s cause, nor world peace and righteousness. (qtd. in Waldron)

R. J. Rushdoony

Although this is not a fair assessment of amillennialism, what he says about it betrays how he seems to despise the way of the cross. For him, becoming a victim and martyr is worthless for the victory of Christ’s cause. The Cross, it seems, is too shameful to win the victory: Rushdoony demands glory.

Gary North, the son-in-law of Rushdoony and popularizer of Reconstructionism and Theonomy, though he would later have a falling out with Rushdoony, puts this craving for crass and carnal glory in even starker terms, 

What is needed is a dynamic, a psychologically motivating impulse to give godly men confidence that their efforts are not in vain, and that their work for the kingdom of God will have meaning in the future, not just in heaven, but in time and on earth. We need a goal to sacrifice for, a standard of performance that is at the same time a legitimate quest. What is needed is confidence that all this talk about the marvels of the kingdom of God becomes more than mere talk. What is needed is a view of history that guarantees to Christians external, visible victory, in time and on earth, as a prelude, a down payment, to the absolute and eternal victory which Christians are confident awaits them after the day of judgment. . . . (qtd. in Waldron)

Gary North

For Paul, the promised Holy Spirit was a sufficient downpayment of our inheritance (Eph. 1:13-14). North demands more: godly men should not be expected to walk by faith, they need to be motivated by sight. Also notice the focus on our efforts and our work rather than focusing on our sure hope that Christ’s work has already earned us eternal life and a kingdom that cannot be moved. Clearly, this is not a theology of the cross. This is a theology of glory.

To be fair, I’m sure many theonomists tone down the externalism of Rushdoony and North. However, I fear the whole focus of Theonomy is on the passing concerns of this evil age and cannot but result in a distraction from our blessed hope. It gets our mind set on seeking glory in this world without the cross, but we are to have a different mind, one that is ours in Christ Jesus that hopes for exaltation by way of the cross (see Phil. 2:5-11), but the vision of Theonomy’s brand of eschatology expects to see whole nations and generations of Christians on top in this world. Is the Carmen Christi only a spectator sport in those times? 

Not only Reformed Baptists, but All Protestants must reject Theonomy

In follow-on posts, I will give reasons why Reformed Baptists in particular must reject Theonomy, but in this post I have given reason for anyone who claims to be Reformed or even Protestant to reject Theonomy. The theology of the cross, the gospel, is what the Protestant Reformation recovered. Therefore, once we recognize an idea as a theology of glory such as Theonomy, we should repudiate it immediately.

In future posts, I hope to examine Theonomy according the Reformed distinction between the Law and the Gospel and the Covenant Theology that flows from that distinction. 

Works Cited

D’Aubigné, J.H. Merle. History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. Powder Springs Press, 2009. 

Hicks, Tom. “Is General Equity Theonomy a Confessional and Biblical Doctrine?” Ask the Pastor, 25 June 2021, pastortomhicks.com/2021/03/16/is-general-equity-theonomy-a-confessional-and-biblical-doctrine/. 

Kline, Meredith G. “Comments on an Old-New Error.” Meredith G. Kline Resource Site, 7 Dec. 2016, meredithkline.com/klines-works/articles-and-essays/comments-on-an-old-new-error/. 

“Thesis 21: When Good Is Evil and Evil Is Good.” 1517, http://www.1517.org/articles/thesis-21-when-good-is-evil-and-evil-is-good. 

Waldron, Sam. “THEONOMY, A REFORMED BAPTIST ASSESSMENT.” Theonomy, a Reformed Baptist Assessment, http://www.reformedreader.org/rbs/tarba.htm. 

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