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Doug Wilson, Please Stop With the Theonomy Stuff

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I greatly admire the folksy wisdom of Douglas Wilson. I have quoted him umpteen hundred times (I’m rounding) in various mediums. I’ve spoken to him (briefly) on the phone. He seems to be completely and utterly unconcerned with political correctness in a grandiose and inspiring sort of way. He seems to be one of the few folks with a degree of notoriety who are willing to wave a flag of concern over the clear leftistism (I just made up that word) of Russell Moore. I have read his books, Wordsmithy, Rules for Reformers, Reforming Marriage, and others. And good for him on all of that.

However, I’ve not quoted Wilson much in recent years for two primary reasons.

First, Wilson seems to have posted up at a corner booth at the Reformed Hipster Bar. By this, I don’t mean that Douglas Wilson is a hipster. Certainly, he had a beard and drank beer before it was cool. But, I don’t like fad Calvinism and my psyche is possessed by a crotchety old man the age of 95 who just wants men like Jeff Durbin to get off of my Calvinistic lawn and go play somewhere else. I’ll let that rant go for another time.

The second and more important reason I’ve not cited Wilson as much as I would have liked (there have been times I typed a Wilson quotation into the Facebook status and pulled it back, afraid that it would be taken as an endorsement without a necessary asterisk) is because of his involvement with Federal Vision. For that, I’ll give a historical summary of this torrid affair and explain how it relates to Wilson’s recent post on theonomy.

Starting with the fact that Federal Vision is a poorly defined, shadowy, and emerging soteriological idea that probably (or at least, hopefully) won’t remain long in the public eye. The controversy began in 2002 at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana. The church hosted a pastor’s conference and the theme was, “The Federal Vision: An Examination of Reformed Covenantalism.” Douglas Wilson would know all about how the controversy got started because he was there as a guest speaker and helped launch the whole mess.

Essentially – as best understood – Federal Vision teaches a “final justification.” If this seems similar to what was recently taught by John Piper, that’s because it’s basically the same thing. The nuts and bolts of the still-nebulous, but nonetheless schismatic doctrine is that justification is essentially progressive and not yet final. Whereas Reformed Christians believe in an Ordo Salutis in which salvation is not yet complete, we have historically denied that justification is not yet complete (justification is just one part of the Ordo Salutis, and is followed by sanctification and glorification).

What Wilson and his cohorts taught was a kind of Roman Catholicky (another made up word) sacerdotalism. To come up with the weird outworkings of Federal Vision (which it is not my intent to exhaustively explain here, but you can read about in other articles), Wilson and his companions abandoned hermeneutics as a “science” and looked at Bible interpretation as an “art” and therefore, began to use words, phrases and terminology in a fluid sense. In other words, getting Wilson and the Federal Visionists to really tell us what they believed was like trying to nail jello to the wall.

Most egregiously, the doctrine taught that someone was in the family of God regardless of whether or not they were the elect, and this is seen in Douglas Wilson’s debate with James White over whether or not Roman Catholics are our “brothers and sisters in Christ.” When I watched a “Reformed” believer, Doug Wilson, argue that Papists were to be considered our Christian kinsmen, I literally wanted to vomit. I don’t mean that metaphorically; I mean it made me literally sick to my stomach.

Secondly, Federal Vision was in the end explicitly rejected by – pretty much everybody.

The RPCUS, a Presbyterian denomination, immediately called for Wilson’s repentance, along with the other three speakers at that event. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) called their view “aberrant.” The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) issued nine declarations against Federal Vision (saying it explicitly contradicts the Westminster standards). The Reformed Church in the United States issued a statement against Federal Vision. The URNCA issued a statement calling it “heresy.” Finally, R.C. Sproul said at the PCA’s 35th Assembly, “I can’t fathom why there’s any hesitancy about [rejecting Federal Vision]. There’s too much at stake—this is the Gospel we’re talking about.”

The reason I did not anathematize Wilson or consider him quite the threat that the vast majority of his Presbyterian brothers did, is that I could see him back-peddling away carefully from the mess he created. He made the Federal Vision mess, there is no doubt, but at least he wasn’t proud of it. In the end, Wilson himself had to abort the baby he conceived, denouncing Federal Vision in a blog post from January of last year, entitled, “Federal Vision No Mas.”

I was very happy to see Wilson in time, wisely reject his illconceived creation. In this case, the Christian court did exactly what it was supposed to do. It took errant brothers, admonished them, reproved them, and brought them to repentance.

If the Presbyterians had not responded so quickly, the heresy might have grown in their camp (instead it lept over to John Piper’s camp). In the post, denouncing his own child, Wilson writes…

I have decided, after mulling over it for some years now, to discontinue identifying myself with what has come to be called the federal vision. It used to be that when I was asked if I held to the federal vision, I would say something like “yes, if by that you mean . . .” Now my intention will be to simply say no. I don’t.

This obviously requires explanation, which I hope to provide here. This post is simply an attempt at a more careful qualification of terms, but must itself be carefully qualified.

Wilson’s argument is that Federal Vision kind of got away from him. What he meant by it is not what other people have meant by it. And so, because the whole thing has been nothing but a matter of miscommunication, Wilson has decided to stop “identifying” as a Federal Visionist.

And, good for him. The thing about making Frankenstein’s monster is that he eventually tries to kill Dr. Frankenstein. But, we can chock up the entire Federal Vision steaming-pile-of-dung-hitting-the-fan experience, to Doug Wilson not being careful about defining terms.

Then, imagine my annoyance at his recent post, Theonomy is a Many Splendored Thing

Wilson bolstered theonomy fanboys during the brief 2010-2015 (or so) Internet-fueled resurgence of Christian Reconstruction (many of whom also fell into Federal Vision) because he would call himself a “General Equity Theonomist.” Having post-millennialism in common with the Reconstructionists, Wilson – at the very least – was not helpful by using (in fact, making up) terms meant to obfuscate his views and differentiate them from those held by Rushdoony, North and Bahnsen. Every believer holding to the Westminster standards or the LBC1689 believes in the “General Equity” of Mosaic Law because it’s written into the Confession in Chapter 19 (the General Equity is that part of Mosaic Law which is universal and moral within it)!

So then, if every Presbyterian or Reformed Baptist is supposed to believe in the General Equity, then calling oneself a “General Equity Theonomist” is absolutely unhelpful. It’s unhelpful because the founder of theonomy, RJ Rushdoony, called the Confession, “nonsense ” (Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 550, 551). So then, if people who coined the term, “theonomy,” either denounced the Confession or grossly misdefined words (like Bahnsen) to feign embrace of it, then calling yourself a “General Equity Theonomist” is synonymous with “not a Theonomist.”

Wilson pulls out the favorite parlor trick of the McDurmon-branch of Christian Reconstruction and writes…

So what I would like to do is provide a quick run-down or summary of the different ways we might understand theonomy, which means nothing more or less than “God’s law,” which is to say, His love.

Before I get to the problems in his completely self-defined, artificially contrived, totally made up branches of “theonomy,” I want to address the supposition stated here by Wilson. This being that “theonomy…means nothing more or less than ‘God’s Law'” is nothing but a rhetorical cow paddy. The reason Wilson’s statement is pure bunk propaganda is because the etymology of the word is, indeed, “God’s Law” (Θεός and νόμος) but theonomy as a term means much, much more than merely “God’s Law.” This gross fallacy is beneath Doug Wilson, and one he should accordingly apologize for and abandon forthwith. He is smart enough to know that the meaning of a term is greater than, and sometimes even different from it’s etymology.

If history matters – and it does – then those who invented “theonomy” and coined the term should get to decide what the term means. Even the mother of a bastard child gets to name it. When Joel McDurmon completely abandoned theonomy after our 2015 debate, and came out of the non-theonomy closet with his book, The Bounds of Love, I wrote…

Central to [theonomy] 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, and 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 and Moorecraft, all who 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 put 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.

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, with having declared theonomy dead after the last crumb off of Grandpa Rushdoony’s table had fallen to the dogs and American Vision became TINO (“theonomy in name only”), imagine my dismay when I see Doug Wilson trying to resurrect the term! The term, theonomy, is the equivalent of Lo-AMMI. It’s illegitimate. Yes, “God’s Law” is wonderful. But no, theonomy does not mean “God’s Law” except in its etymology. It has always meant much more than that.

In his post, Wilson discusses different kinds of theonomy: law/gospel hermeneutic theonomy, inescapable theonomy, general equity theonomy, case-law theonomy, and jubilee theonomy. As one of the few people on the planet who have debated theonomic leaders in a moderated debate format (Tommy Ice is the only other living one I know of) and as someone who has read thousands and thousand and thousaaaaaaaands of pages of theonomic writing, I can assure you that these terms are completely contrived in the head of Douglas Wilson. And while I reserve the right to make up terms as well (we do that frequently in polemics to keep up with the latest heresies), Wilson is doing it poorly.

What we want people to do is say, “No, I am not a theonomist. That was made up by RJ Rushdoony. It was stupid. We have moved on.” What we don’t want people to do is say, “Yes, I am a [insert hypen] theonomist” and go about defining it any way they want. Words have meanings. They have context. If Douglas Wilson doesn’t watch it, he’s going to resurrect the corpse of theonomy through the zombiefied monster of miscommunication.

Wilson’s manufacturing of the Federal Vision bomb was due to imprecise language and the free-wheeling insistence on operating from his own lexicon. As the saying goes, “Where there’s mist in the pulpit, there will be fog in the pew.” He’s breeding confusion when it comes to theonomy, and should stop.


[Contributed by JD Hall]