Theonomy and the Regulative Principle of Worship

law.gifThere is a growing movement within Protestant fundamentalism today that holds to a position called theonomy.  Theonomy is simply “rule by God’s law.”  Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it?  However, “God’s law” for the proponents of this system is the Mosaic law to which all modern law is to be conformed.

Theonomy is part of a larger theological system called Dominionism or Dominion Theology.  While you may not have heard of the terms before, you have certainly heard from its proponents.  From James Dobson of Focus on the Family to R.C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries to Pat Robertson of CBN to D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge to Doug Phillips of the Vision Forum–these leaders appear to be dedicated to reinstating God’s law in modern-day society and thus establishing a type of theocratic kingdom on the earth.  

Many of these men also seem to subscribe to a more radical form of dominionism known as Christian Reconstructionism, which was largely founded through the writings of R. J. Rushdoony.  This branch of Dominionism marries theocracy with the theology of postmillennialism.  The result?  Christian Reconstructionists believe, that over time, good will triumph over evil; and when the time is right, Christ will return to the earth–at the end of the Millennium, which is viewed by many as simply symbolic of a long period of time.  So, through political and ecclesiastical activism, advocates of Christian Reconstructionism believe they can “bring in the kingdom.”

You know, as a Christian, the concept of theonomy or Dominionism is appealing in one sense.  Wouldn’t it be nice if government and society not only accepted but enforced Judeo-Christian values as the rule of law?  We wouldn’t have to deal with the overt display of perversion anymore–homosexuals, adulterers, even rebellious children would simply be executed.  Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about political correctness or “hate speech,” not to be concerned about the ACLU and Planned Parenthood anymore, and be assured that our laws reflected the Law of God?

One of the positive results of the writings of Rushdoony was that they impacted a man named Francis Schaeffer.  That’s right–the founder of L’Abri and writer of Christian apologetics was influenced by Christian Reconstructionism.  However, as he did better than probably anyone else, Schaeffer took the best from Rushdoony’s writings and applied them to pre-millennial theology.  The result?  Francis Schaeffer showed us how and why we should redeem culture.  He was opposed to “bringing in” a theocratic kingdom and believed Jesus Christ would return at an unknown but immanent time of God’s choosing.  However, instead of isolating ourselves from culture and thus in affect creating our own subculture, Schaeffer wrote with zeal about the cultural mandate believers have in society–that it’s okay to use appropriate cultural forms to communicate the Gospel.  Even in political or ecclesiastical action, we do not seek to compel the coming of Christ but rather to follow His teaching to be light and salt and “in but not of the world.”

Now what does any of this have to do with the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW)?  Well, I need to give a brief overview of the principle first.  The RPW is the product of Reformed Theology from the Presbyterian Church and is one of the most theologically significant concepts to come out of the Protestant Reformation.  The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) defines the concept:

But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture. [emphasis mine] (WCF 21.1)

The document earlier says,

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word; or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. [emphasis mine] (WCF 20.2)

So, the RPW means that everything regarding the worship of God must come from Scripture.  To that, I add an emphatic “AMEN!”  However, a few points of clarification are needed.  First, the WCF does not teach a wooden adherance to the RPW as some would suggest.  In other words, the RPW does not require explicit commands from Scripture for every aspect of worship.  Some Reformers (and even contemporary RPW advocates) would have the Church worship only using the Psalms as the text for singing and only the instrumentation named in the Bible.  This wooden interpretation of the RPW does not agree with other statements in the WCF.  To illustrate, read the following:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture. [emphasis mine] (WCF 1.6)

Clearly then, the intent of the RPW is that all aspects of worship come from the Scriptures, whether through fiat or deduction.  I have no problem with that.

I do, however, have a problem with a semicolon.  In the quote previously referred to (20.2), the WCF seems to distinguish between scriptural sufficiency in most areas of life and worship.  While the standard for most of life is that everything is permissible that is not “contrary to his word,” the standard for worship is different: everything that is “beside it.”  This sets up a false dichotomy, in my opinion.

Allow me to illustrate with one of my favorite Bible passages: Romans 14.  I know I have been unclear at times in addressing “doubtful things”; as a result, I have often created controversy where none, perhaps, was warranted.  According to verse one, there are things that are morally neutral (adiaphora), things like “holy days” and “meat offered to idols” and “wine” and the like.  However, I want to be perfectly clear that once a moral agent interacts with any of these neutral items, the actions take on morality, in goal and motive.   In essence, there is no such thing as adiaphoron when it comes to human action.  Where we see no command of Scripture, we refer to broader principles of Scripture and make deduction from Scripture to determine our participation in every action.  Every action, thus, must be considered.  The Bible even tells us so when it says “whatever we do” to do “for the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 10:31)  Even the food we eat must be done in a manner that glorifies God–it is a moral action.  So it is with worship.

Here’s the point of this article (and I apologize for its verbosity): those who would relegate the RPW to a simple exercise of following explicit biblical commands are no different from theonomists who would demand the conformity of all of our societal and governmental exercises to the “jot and tittles” of the Mosaic law.  Both are wrong.  Discernment, not just demand characterizes the covenantal relationship of our God with mankind.

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20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Robert B. Sanders on October 17, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Brian,

    Good article. Two verses come to mind as you end with a proper emphasis of discernment:

    Galatians 5:16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

    2 Corinthians 3:17 Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

    – A Friend of Francis

    Reply

  2. Brian,

    Are you opposed to the RPW or to “those would would relegate the RPW to a simple exercise of following explicite biblical commands?”

    Reply

  3. Not opposed to the RPW in principle AT ALL.

    Not opposed to the more “wooden” practitioners of the RPW but I am uneasy about that position, primarily because of the dichotomy it establishes between worship and the rest of life. I don’t see that dichotomy. If nothing else, I would want strict proponents of RPW to acknowledge that the principle is not as cut and dry as they might have thought it to be.

    Reply

  4. Brian wrote:

    ““God’s law” for the proponents of this system [Theonomy] is the Mosaic law to which all modern law is to be conformed.”

    RESPONSE:

    Not quite. for “God’s law” in Thenomy includes both the Mosaic law and the NT covenantal modifications. No Theonomist for example, advocates the civil enforcement of the seventh day Sabbath rest. Nor do Theonomists advocate a literal conformity to the OT Mosaic law since the OT cultural aspects of the law were only time bound.

    One of the Theonomic theses is: “that we are to presume continuity of the entire OT law, unless the NT states otherwise”. Hence, the NT plays a big role in the matter of determining the degree of OT continuity and discontinuty.

    Brian wrote:

    “those who would relegate the RPW to a simple exercise of following explicit biblical commands are no different from theonomists who would demand the conformity of all of our societal and governmental exercises to the “jot and tittles” of the Mosaic law.”

    RESPONSE: Actually it is Jesus who demands conformity to the “jots and tittles” of the OT law. [Matt 5:18-19]. And that would only include “societal and governmental exercises” where stipulated either explicitly or by good deduction.

    BTW do you propose a better moral source for “societal and governmental exercises” than God’s law?

    Brian wrote:
    “Discernment, not just demand characterizes the covenantal relationship of our God with mankind”.

    RESPONSE: Where does Theonomy preclude the use of “discernment”? The OT contains the book of Proverbs which tells us to use wise discernment on moral issues. But we still need an objective moral standard in which to discern in the first place. Hence, God’s law.

    For a good Theonomic critique of Francis Schaeffer, see Gary DeMar’s chapter 3 of “Theonomy: An Informed Response” entitled, “The Fear of Flying”, p.57ff

    http://freebooks.commentary.net/freebooks/docs/2112_47e.htm

    Colin

    Reply

  5. I must confess- I understand that you have a concern with these positions, but I fail to see what one had to do with the other. Your reply to Bob further muddies the waters. Are you opposed to the more “wooden” theonomists, but ok with a “looser” theonomy?

    I also fail to see how you can validly connect some of the people you do (such as Dobson or Robertson) with a Theonomistic view. It seems that this is more than a stretch- it is a lack of understanding with what Theonomy properly is- and is not.

    This just seems quite muddled.

    Reply

  6. Colin,

    Thanks for your comments. You are quite right–theonomy “includes both the Mosaic law and the NT covenantal modifications.” However, in the area of Christian Reconstructionism, there are many believers who, indeed, wish to follow the Mosaic law more literally than you implied.

    When you said “Actually it is Jesus who demands conformity to the “jots and tittles” of the OT law,” I actually disagree with you. The passage to which you referred contains no mandate. It is quite clear from the teaching of the NT that we are NOT under the law, but rather grace. This does not mean we can be lawless, but rather that we follow a higher law than the law of the OT, the law of love: love for God and love for our neighbor.

    My point in this article was not necessarily to write an extended critique of theonomy but rather to show a comparison between advocates of theonomy and the RPW in the way they approach the Bible and decision-making.

    Reply

  7. Greg,

    Sorry I wasn’t more clear. These are not the easiest ideas to articulate in a small space. The point I wanted to get across is that (1) theonomy takes a “wooden” approach to biblical law and (2) the RPW comes from that theology; (3) thus, many RPW advocates take a “wooden” (and wrong) approach to biblical worship. I support the RPW in principle–that is, all of our decisions regarding worship and life for that matter must be sourced in the Scriptures, both from mandate and deducation. I do NOT support those who would segregate worship into its own category and treat it differently than the rest of life.

    Regarding the connection of the various people at the beginning of the article with theonomy, you’ll have to illumine me. I read several scholarly articles while researching this that had no problem connecting these men to the theologies listed in the article.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Keith on October 18, 2006 at 8:44 am

    If merely making theonomy premillenial makes it acceptable, then you probably need to move Dobson and Robertson over to the Francis Schaeffer side.

    Does merely being premillenial make Schaeffer acceptable to fundamentalists? Or does he need to become a dispensationalist too. He was the former. He most certainly was not the later.

    Furthermore, Schaeffer’s use of reformed ideas went far beyond using the cultural mandate as a reason for evangelism. He regularly acknowledged that western laws have their ultimate source in Biblical law. He also regularly acknowledged that without the Bible there is no such thing as truth or justice.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Keith on October 18, 2006 at 8:50 am

    If merely being postmillenial makes one unacceptable, then Jonathan Edwards is unacceptable.

    If merely making theonomy premillenial makes it acceptable, then you probably need to move Dobson and Robertson over to the Francis Schaeffer side.

    Is premillenial enough, or is dispensationalism required? Schaeffer was the former. He most certainly was not the later.

    Furthermore, Schaeffer’s use of reformed ideas went far beyond using the cultural mandate as a reason for evangelism. He regularly acknowledged that western laws have their ultimate source in Biblical law. He also regularly acknowledged that without the Bible there is no such thing as truth or justice.

    Reply

  10. Keith,

    I didn’t say that Schaeffer made theonomy premillenial. I said that he took the best of Rushdoony’s writings and applied those concepts to premillennial theology. And sure, being premillennial would naturally make Schaeffer more acceptable to many fundamentalists.

    I have no problem with your last paragraph. It is a good addition to the discussion.

    Reply

  11. Posted by Keith on October 18, 2006 at 9:01 am

    Sorry that my previous bit posted twice. I’m not sure why.

    Since, I’m posting an annoying third time here, I might as well make a couple more points:

    The regulative principle existed long before R.J. Rushdoony or Greg Bahnsen or Gary North or etc. The RPW arose from Puritan theology not from theonomist theology. There are obviously certain affinities between Puritanism and later Theonomy and Reconstructionism but, if anything, the later emerged from the former.

    As far as scholarly articles linking the guys you mention, who was the scholar? Anti Christian folks regularly link these guys together under “Dominionist” or “Theocracy” to make it appear that they are a conspiratorial threat. That’s just nonsense. Nevertheless, an honest and sympathetic scholar could point out that when it comes to reconstructing American civilization, these guys all took some cues from Rushdoony.

    Finally (for now) Theonomy does not call for wooden application of the law to the extent that most people think. The death penalty for various sins (as you mentioned) is not held by most theonomists to be a wooden minimum penalty. It is the maximum penalty, and the discernement of wise judges is necessary to determine when to administer maximum penalties and when to administer lesser penalties.

    Reply

  12. Keith,

    First, you’re welcome here anytime. I appreciate your cogent thinking on every issue I have ever interacted with you.

    Second, my research led me to believe that the RPW came out of Reformation Theology and specifically the Scottish Presbyterian Church, not the Puritans.

    It seems to me that there is no great consensus among advocates of theonomy on any number of issues. Some may indeed hold that the death penalty is the maximum penalty, but I know of plenty of more radical theonomists who would maintain it is the only appropriate penalty for the specified crimes.

    I think there is generally a good deal of confusion over the terms themselves I have used in the article.

    How would you (generally, not just Keith) define theonomy, Christian Reconstructionism, and Dominionism? Have these terms become as diverse and dilluted in meaning as even the term fundamentalist?

    Reply

  13. There is a short Q&A piece from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (a denomination that would be generally pretty strict on the Regulative Principle) here:

    http://www.opc.org/qa.html?question_id=95

    They do not connect Theonomy with the Regulative Principle (or the rest of the Westminster Confession/Catechisms) as you do.

    You also seem to be using the term Theonomy as synonymous with Dominionism. Theonomy seems to be more specific- though, in Reformed churches proper, it also seems to be a term that is hard to speak of in definitive terms.

    Reply

  14. Posted by Keith on October 18, 2006 at 10:28 am

    Thanks for the welcome. Your research as to the origins of RPW does not appear to be mistaken. I agree that it emerged from reformed theology and Scots Presbyterianism. However, the English Puritans (at least some of them) wanted the Anglican church to become more like what we know as Scots Presbyterianism. Hence my perhaps insufficiently precise use of the term Puritan.

    More “traditional” Anglicans thought that “what was not forbidden in worship was allowed.” The party that established the terms for worship in the WCF rejected that understanding and called for “what is not commanded in worship is forbidden.”

    Nevertheless, my main point remains intact. Reformed Theology (whether English or Continental), Scots Presbyterianism, The Westminster Confession, Puritanism (in England then exported various places like America), and Separatism (of the post-puritan not the fundamentalist type), all preceded the movement or movements known as Dominionist, Theonomic, or Reconstructionist.

    As far as the terms go. Yes, they have become as diluted and confusing as the term “fundamentalist.” No question about it. In fact, an argument could be made that the original movement has fallen apart completely and that far from growing in protestantism it is fading away.

    I think the “official” definition of Theonomy and Reconstruction have to come from Bahnsen and Rushdoony. Dominion is a part of their postmillenial plan, but the term “Dominionist” seems (anecdotally) to be used more by charismatic types than the reformed types.

    In addition to the historical reality that “movement” reconstructionism is falling apart, confusion occurs on this topic because noone “owns” these words and many different types with different visions use them. Kind of like “Bible believer” or “Conservative”.

    What Christian doesn’t believe that God’s people will have dominion? The question is what does that mean and when will it happen?

    What Christian doesn’t believe that God’s law (Theonomy) would be just? The question is how should it be applied to nonbelievers.

    What Christian would not appreciate some reconstruction of the government in our country? The question is how much of that is the Church’s responsibility?

    Keith

    Reply

  15. Posted by Joy Wagner on October 18, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    I think the question is complicated and the answer is just as complicated. For instance, how much of the Bible can I use even for worship? Am I limited to simply the Pauline epistles or should I also use the OT for guidelines of worship? Another question I have is to what extent do we follow the path of any particular movement versus folling the path of the Scripture? I believe that Christ actually sets up a higher standard than the Mosaic law. He said, “You have heard that it has been said thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you that whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has commited adultery with her already in his heart.” (matt. 5:27, 28) Christ also made similar comments of several of the Mosaic laws. In other words, He doesn’t want simply right duty but a right desire. He also said that He came to establish the Law. We know based on Paul’s writings that some things that were anathama in the OT are now free game for the NT believer because Of the finished work of the cross. But, “whatsoever was written beforehand was written for our learning that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4) That being said, I guess the answer comes in the form of other questions.
    The article is clear if the reader remembers what movement you are referring to. Sometimes that gets confusing in my mind.

    Reply

  16. Posted by Colin on October 18, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    Theonomy is a subcategory of Christian Reconstruction [CR] (much like the doctrine of limited atonement is to 5 pt. Calvinism).

    This is demonstrated (and terms defined) in the 1988 article, “The Five Points of Christian Reconstruction” by Mark Duncan:

    http://reformed-theology.org/html/books/five_points/index.html

    Dr. Bahnsen concurs that Theonomy is a subcategory of CR when he writes:

    ““Reconstructionism” popularly names a theological combination of positions which usually includes presuppositional apologetics, a postmillennial view of eschatologly, and a theonomic view of ethics”. –No Other Standard [p.7]

    “Dominionism” is usually a synonym for CR, but sometimes is a subcategory of it as well as in the “Creed of Christian Reconstruction”:

    http://www.jprcc.org/cr.htm

    See also: “Theonomy: What It Is, What It Is Not”

    http://www.ipc.faithweb.com/documents/THEONOMY.htm

    See also the 1992 book, “Heaven On Earth? The Social and Political Agenda of Dominion Theology” [Chapter 2]by Bruce Barron

    Colin

    Reply

  17. Posted by Colin on October 18, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    Brian wrote:

    “Second, my research led me to believe that the RPW came out of Reformation Theology and specifically the Scottish Presbyterian Church, not the Puritans.”

    RESPONSE: That is correct, though it can also be traced back further to Calvin who was Knox’s mentor. OTOH the English Puritans were mostly Anglican or Independents, though they still held to a form of RPW contra-Lutherans and Romanists. The Scottish influence on the Puritans had most noticably occurred during the Westminster Assembly (e.g. Rutherford and Gillespie).

    Since many American Theonomists are in Presbyterian Churches, it is not surprising that many of them believe in the RPW. One Theonomist even wrote in defense of the RPW:

    “The Scriptural Law of Worship” by Dr. Carl Bogue

    http://www.all-of-grace.org/pub/others/lawworship.html

    Brian wrote:
    “It seems to me that there is no great consensus among advocates of theonomy on any number of issues”

    RESPONSE: The same can be said about Presbyterians and Calvinists in general. There is no great consensus on eschatology, or applying the RPW, or applying presbyterian polity, or the Genesis account of Creation, or Kline’s Intrusion views, or paedocommuion, Confessional subscription, etc. John Frame’s 2003 article, “Machen’s Warrior Children” summarizes many of these differences.

    http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2003Machen.htm

    Brian wrote:

    “Some may indeed hold that the death penalty is the maximum penalty, but I know of plenty of more radical theonomists who would maintain it is the only appropriate penalty for the specified crimes.”

    RESPONSE: ONly where scripture itself states that it is the proper penalty (e.g. “must surely be put to death”). Hence, where scripture calls for convicted murderers or sodomites or public blasphemers to be put to death by the civil magistrate, there is no room for alternative or less punishments.

    Remember, it must be scripture that guide our political ethics (Matt 5:5), and not our own sinfully tainted preferences or prejudices.

    And since we as Christians all believe in the eternal torture of the damned, then such issues as the civil death penalty for convicted murderers and public blasphemers merely pales in comparison to that. So if believing the latter makes one a “radical”, then God must be the ultimate “radical” there is.

    Colin

    Reply

  18. Brian, you said, “I do NOT support those who would segregate worship into its own category and treat it differently than the rest of life.”

    I am not sure I know what you mean. I am interested if you could name some people you have heard perpetuating this notion.

    Reply

  19. I think most proponents of the RPW perpetuate the statement I made. What I meant by the statement quoted is that the RPW, even in the Westminster Confession, treats worship differently when it comes to the Scripture. According to 20.2 which I quoted in the article, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word; or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” What I deduce from that is most areas of life are governed by whether they are contrary to the Word, or a-biblical; whereas, faith and worship are governed by whether they are different from the Word, or extra-biblical.

    Reply

  20. I would doubt that you would find many among proponents of the RP who do not believe that all of life is worship. You would draw distinctions between “most areas of life” and “faith and worship,” wouldn’t you? Would there not be things in life that are genuine worship which would surely be nonetheless forbidden in corporate worship? Is that not partially what these men are recognizing?

    Reply

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