Ding Dong. The Onomy is Dead.
I wrote Embers of a Dying Fire to explain my post-debate thoughts relating to last year’s theonomy debate with Joel McDurmon. Our debate, unlike the the 1988 Hunt-Ice/Demar-North debate that focused on eschatology, centered on the core issue in theonomy. The resolutions was, “The Mosaic Civil Laws Are Obligatory for Today,” and struck at the seminal, quintessential distinctive proposition of theonomy – the assertion that the laws given to Commonwealth Israel in the Mosaic civil code must be followed by all nations and peoples for all times.
Central to their argument has always been the theonomic assertion that Mosaic penology is the very lynch pin to the ideology. Enforcing the laws mandating certain punishment for certain crimes has always been the cornerstone, foundation, and non-negotiable characteristic of theonomy. While theonomic founders like RJ Rushdoony, Gary North and others have disagreed as to whether or not the method for capital punishment in the Mosaic civil code must be followed (some argued that lethal injection could replace stoning, while others like Gary North have written treatises on why stoning is the go-to method of execution today), all have insisted that there is no theonomy without Mosaic penology.
Mosaic penology is to theonomy what the resurrection is to Christianity. Mosaic penology is to theonomy what the Final Solution was to the Third Reich. Mosaic penology is to theonomy what coffee is to Starbucks. Mosaic penology is to theonomy what glitter-faced, cherry-flavored lip balm-covered tween fan-girls are to Justin Beiber. You get the point. One doesn’t exist without the other.
I’ve been hesitant to write this article, in part, because of stage-4 theonomy fatigue. The thought of citing the multitudinous references in the gigantic canon of theonomic literature (all produced by the same seven or so figures in the last half of the twentieth century) was daunting. I broke out my vast collection of these books from the shelf in my office labeled “Bad Theology” and sat down with a highlighter last week, intent on collecting the vast sum of these assertions from Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen, Demar, Chilton, Jordan, Moorecraft who all explicitly teach that there is no theonomy – no following “God’s Law” – without enforcing the exhaustive detail of Mosaic Law, including (and especially) the penology ordinances.
Gary North was astoundingly firm that Mosaic penology was part and parcel to theonomy…
The most distinctive aspect of theonomic ethics, if not also its most controversial application, is its endorsement of the continuing validity and social justice of the penal sanctions stipulated within the law of God. Were it not for the fact that the theonornic position leads to this conclusion, if one is to be logically and Biblically consistent, many critics would not find it necessary to try to refute the position. – Gary North, No Other Standard, pg 211
Gary North, son-in-law of RJ Rushdoony and father-in-law of Joel McDurmon, accuses those who reject the full body of Mosaic penology of arbitrary and humanist tyranny. Furthermore, and more to the point, he insinuates that those who don’t apply Mosaic penology are not theonomists…
Critics have used a large variety of methods to avoid being driven to an endorsement of the Old Testament penal code. In the meantime, they have done precious little to propose an alternative and Biblically sanctioned approach to the punishment of criminals in our own day. What little they have to say regarding this subject is easily faulted for embodying the same arbitrariness and/or tyranny which characterizes the penology of humanists. Why should the divinely revealed standards of crime and punishment found in the Bible be unacceptable? When we turn to the arguments of non-theonomists, we do not find very compelling answers. – Gary North, No Other Standard, pg 211
Greg Bahnsen, perhaps the most respectable theonomist, was very clear that Mosaic penology is an intrinsic part of the theonomic system.
Quite simply, civil magistrates ought to mete out the punishment which God has prescribed in His word. When one stops to reflect on this proposition, it has an all-too-obvious truthfulness and justice about it. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). If civil magistrates are indeed “ministers of God” who avenge His wrath against evildoers, who better would know what kind and degree of punishment is appropriate for every crime than the Lord? And where would He make this standard of justice known but in His word? The penal sanctions for crime should be those revealed in the law of the Lord…Where God has prescribed it in His word, such civil punishments for crime are quite necessary. – Bahnsen, By This Standard, pg 271.
Bahnsen had the hardest words for those who didn’t subscribe to the total implementation of Mosaic penology.
Those who deny the validity of the penal sanctions found in the revealed law of God, however, rarely have cogent and clear alternatives to offer. When they do, these alternatives rarely stem from a Christian standpoint. Moreover, those advocating criminal penalties apart from God’s revealed law hardly ever show a willingness to stand behind or defend the fairness and justice of their specific proposals. In short, those who demur at the idea of current day magistrates follow the penal sanctions of God’s law usually leave us with the position that there are no permanently just standards of punishment, for magistrates are left to themselves to devise their own penal codes autonomously. If some ruler thought that stealing two pennies deserved death, while killing an innocent child deserved the fine of two pennies, many Christian teachers would have no objective way to demonstrate the in.justice of this arrangement. Their failure to produce a God-glorifying, Scripturally-anchored, method of knowing what justice demands in particular cases of criminal activity would in principle leave us at the mercy of magistrate-despots. – Bahnsen, By This Standard, pg 274-275
Rushdoony adamantly defended as an essential party of theonomy (and he should know, since he invented it), the abiding validity of the penal sanctions…
“The Bible identifies 15 crimes against the family worthy of the death penalty. Abortion is treason against the family and deserves the death penalty. Adultery is treason to the family; adulterers should be put to death. Homosexuality is treason to the family, and it too, is worthy of death.” – Interview with Bill Moyers, 1988.
Gary DeMar, McDurmon’s previous boss at American Vision, also taught that the homosexual and adulterer should be kept to death in keeping with the theonomic system (link).
Literally, anyone with a modicum of understanding of what theonomy is understands that Mosaic penology has always been the centerpiece of theonomy. Like, anyone. So, I was a tad annoyed painting all of my theonomy books yellow in order to demonstrate what clearly ought to be known by anyone and everyone. And so, after quickly ending the short life of my favorite highlighter, I decided to instead just use the words of the only leading “theonomist” around today who is not already dead, capitalizing on economic conspiracy theories, or retired. I decided to use the words of my debate opponent and the president of American Vision, Joel McDurmon.
The argument is simple; if the laws are just and have not been rescinded by Scripture explicitly or by some necessary deduction, they’re obligatory…if they’re just, they’re obligatory – 9.15
Law is case law, coming from judicial law…if Paul is saying the judicials apply, what does that say about the penalties that go with the judicials? Do we get to make a distinction between those? If you do, where does the Scripture say that? Where does Paul rescind those? Where does the Gospel or New Testament, where has God anywhere rescinded those, to say the judicial categories apply here, but the penalties don’t? – 17.15
[JD] has to answer that question [whether or not a 17th century bestophile should be put to death], is it just. If it is just, he must answer “by what standard” is it unjust. And if it is just, it is obligatory. – 20.00
Thomas Granger [the bestophile], was that penalty just?…That is God’s standard. And you have to show why that standard is unjust. – 1:03.00ish
So, in case you’re new to the debate or the discussion, in the first theonomy debate in 25 years between the latest generation’s standard-bearer and Montana polemicist, the theonomic torch-bearer focused on Mosaic penology. To prove his grand point, McDurmon repeatedly drew from the story of Thomas Granger, who was executed for bestiality. McDurmon hinged his entire argument upon the eternal validity of Israel’s civil code upon the righteousness and necessity of this Puritan bestophile being executed.
Theonomy isn’t about “God’s law is good.” The distinctive doctrine of theonomy is that Israel’s civil code is obligatory for all nations and all times, and the central core of that is the Mosaic penology. That is theonomy. Without that, it’s not theonomy.
Now, consider me shocked to read this in McDurmon’s new primer on theonomy:
Civil government no longer has jurisdiction over First Table offenses. These punishments, as regular mandatory punishments, are no longer in effect. – The Bounds of Love, Kindle location 1158 of 2779
Excuse me. Say what? McDurmon says the civil magistrate can’t enforce First Table offenses? For crying out loud, this throws out a huge part, probably a majority, of the civil code penologies. It’s simply unbelievable. Without this, there is no theonomy. Rushdoony and Bahnsen would be rolling over in their grave and Gary North rolling over in his Y2k bunker. In one fell swoop, McDurmon has left behind any claim as to being a theonomist in any real or meaningful way.
McDurmon vehemently disagreed with his now current position in that theonomy debate. In fact, if he had the view then that he has now he would not have been able to argue the affirmative position. McDurmon ends the debate with quotations from Phil Johnson and John MacArthur, using their words to advocate for capital punishment for homosexuals. But look at McDurmon’s new non-theonomic views:
While all these sexual sins – adultery, sodomy, and bestiality – remain abominable sins, with the coming of Christ and the abolition of the Old Covenant administration, they can no longer be said to be capital crimes…in light of this, I have revised my earlier published views that adultery and homosexual sodomy are punishable by the death penalty.” – The Bounds of Love, Kindle location 1231 of 2779
That eerie sound you hear are the ghosts of Bahnsen and Rushdoony, hearing McDurmon’s repudiation of the Civil Magistrate’s authority over the First Table and penology for bestiality, homosexuality, adultery and more, moaning out from beyond the grave, “By whose standard, Joel? By whose standard?!”
From the perspectives of North, Rushdoony, Bahnsen and more, McDurmon has abandoned theonomy like a Titanic patron onto a rowboat. That McDurmon still calls himself a theonomist when abandoning its most central tenets, and doing so in a primer on theonomy nonetheless, is astounding.
Why hasn’t the ideology of theonomy raised the white flag (or put it at half mast)? Shouldn’t there have been a memo sent out to the meager remains of theonomy’s followers that their chief antagonist is no longer on the boat? Why haven’t the theonomy social media groups disbanded? Why is Bojidar Marinov still breathing out murderous threats against law enforcement under the theonomic banner? It’s basically like the boys are still dancing around the fire in war-paint faces, still singing to the pig’s head, while Simon’s dead body is laying there at their feet. It’s Lord of the Flies over in theonomy land, and no one understands that the movement was just bludgeoned to death
And then, I see that McDurmon wrote an open letter to Matt Slick, begging Slick to change the category of theonomy on the CARM website. My first thought is, “On what serious level is McDurmon representing theonomy to Matt Slick? He dumped theonomy like the homely girl on prom night. McDurmon dropped theonomy like a hot potato. McDurmon has gutted theonomy like a mule deer buck on opening day. I’m running out of comparisons.
Dude, you’re not a theonomist. Let it go. Let an actual theonomist fight those battles.
In the meantime, we should do a funeral for theonomy. But, I don’t think anybody would come.
[Contributed by JD Hall]