Criticisms of theonomy are in vogue once again. I see this as a good turn of events. It shows an interest in social ethics and attempts to offer a viable methodology. I’ve noticed, however, that the criticisms of theonomy are not new. They’ve been dealt with in numerous publications since the 1970s. It’s rather remarkable that anyone would publish a critique of theonomy without first reading the many answered objections. So as not to make their burden too difficult, a good place to start would be with Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen’s book** No Other Standard**_: Theonomy and Its Critics_ published in 1991—30 years ago! There are others, for example,** Theonomy: An Informed Response** (1991), Gary North’s Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy (1991), and Kenneth Gentry’s and Greg Bahnsen’s House Divided (1989).
Thomas C. Atwood, in his critique of Christian activism during the 1980s, hoped to deal with contemporary moral issues by an appeal to general revelation and its twin brother natural law. He based his summation on what I consider to be a faulty reading and misapplication of Romans 2:14–15. Atwood writes:
A … theological error that has hindered the effectiveness of the Evangelical Right in coalition politics has been a failure to distinguish between the means of special grace and common grace, and between the authorities of special revelation and general revelation…. Special revelation is that revelation which explains the redemptive plan of God—historically considered to be found only in Scripture….
Common grace is that grace available within God’s created order; it is afforded to all people regardless of religious belief. This created order includes not only physical nature but also aspects of metaphysical nature, including the created moral order.
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General revelation is universally knowable wisdom that points to God as Creator and to the order of His creation. God’s “eternal power and deity [can be] clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). His created moral order is knowable by examining “the law written on our hearts” (Romans 2:15). This is the law by which all candid people know that murder is wrong, for example. It is the law by which our consciences, if they are not too cauterized and traumatized by sin, judge us.
Atwood’s summation is fraught with problems, the least of which is more than 30 years of failed attempts to work in terms of a common grace/natural law foundation.
First, Atwood sees special revelation and general revelation as two distinguishable “authorities.” Can natural law and general revelation function in an ultimate sense without any knowledge of special revelation? Are general revelation and natural law results voted on by the people based on a majority vote? How do we know if these laws are God’s laws? Should we expect special and general revelation to agree on all points? If they agree, then general and special revelationists should be working for the same moral order in the particulars with the same results. If one disagrees with the other, then the Christian has a problem. Which authority is the most trustworthy? Atwood and other advocates of an undefined general revelation must answer these questions.
The Advantage of Special Revelation
Second, if general revelation is adequate in the construction of a comprehensive ethical system, then why does Paul say that the Jews have had an advantage since “they were entrusted with the oracles of God”? (Rom. 3:2). Is it only because of special revelation’s unique relationship with God’s plan of redemption? The passage must mean more than this since the “oracles of God” describes God’s special revelation, including those laws that pertain to the individual, family, ecclesiastical, and especially civil righteousness. So then, special revelation must have an advantage over general revelation in its formulation of a “moral order.”
The Law as Wisdom
Third, if God’s “created moral order is knowable by examining ‘the law written on the heart,’” then why would the nations marvel at the statutes and judgments that God gave to Israel (“the oracles of God”)? Israel was to “keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Deut. 4:6). In time, nations did come (1 Kings 10:1–10). It was not general revelation that impressed the Queen of Sheba so that “there was no more spirit in her” (v. 5). The nations had general revelation but something was missing. Israel had a special revelation that would make the people, particularly rulers, much wiser than they could ever be with general revelation alone. This wisdom is not simply the wise use of general revelation. The Psalmist tells us that “Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine” (Psalm 119:98). The entire 119th Psalm is a straightforward commentary on how God’s law gives man “more insight than all [his] teachers” (119:99).
John the Baptist did not confront Herod based on General Revelation. He followed in the footsteps of the prophet Nathan who confronted King David for his moral treachery. Bahnsen writes:
In his preaching against sin John [the Baptist] indicted the illegality of the magistrate’s behavior, specifically mentioning Herod. The summary of his indictment is given in Mark 6: 18: “it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” … Not only were public officials to obey the law ofGod, but it is clear that even the sanctions of the law were to be observed. For instance, if a tax collector were to steal from the people, God’s law would require restitution of him (c£ Ex. 22:1). And this is actually what we find in the case of Zacchaeus…. Revelation [13:16; 14:12; c£ Deut. 6:8] condemns human government (e.g., imperial Rome) that replaces the law of God with the law of the state.
Theonomy critic “Dan McCartney makes the amazing claim that in the New Testament ‘the law is applied only to be1ievers.’ When John the Baptist condemned Herod Antipas for his adulterous and incestuous marriage to Herodias, declaring ‘It is not lawful’ for him to do so (Matt. 14:4), you cannot miss the fact that the Mosaic law was being applied to an unbeliever…. When Paul declares that the law was intended — and can be lawfully used — to restrain murderers of parents, kidnappers, sexual perverts, etc. (1 Tim. 1:8–10), he openly contradicts the conclusion of McCartney that the law is never applied to unbelievers.”
Will it Point to Jesus?
Fourth, under a moral order where general revelation/natural law predominates, with few or any ties with the God of Scripture, we would never hear words similar to the Queen of Sheba: “Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness” (v. 9).
Let’s look at a contemporary example. In addressing the Texas legislature, Chuck Colson told the legislators that “the only answer to the crime problem is to take nonviolent criminals out of our prisons and make them pay back their victims with restitution. This is how we can solve the prison crowding problem.” A number of the legislators were amazed at this wisdom. They came up to Colson “one after another and said things like, ‘That’s a tremendous idea. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?’ I had the privilege of saying to them, ‘Read Exodus 22. It is only what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.’”
If people are willing to listen to the Bible’s wisdom on issues relating to this life, then maybe they will consider the wisdom that leads to eternal life. In fact, it is this biblical wisdom that attracts many in the unbelieving world to the gospel. A moral system based on general revelation does little to attract people to the Bible that speaks of Jesus Christ.
The Work of the Law
Fifth, Atwood misquotes Romans 2:15. This passage does not say the law is written on the heart but only that the Gentiles “show the work of the law written in their hearts.” While Atwood believes that God’s “created moral order is knowable by examining this law,” the passage in context seems only to be saying that the law has an impact (work) on the heart of sinners, “alternately accusing or else defending them” so that they will be without excuse on judgment day. To extrapolate from this single verse that an entire “created moral order” is written on the heart of man is reading into this verse an already constructed social theory based on general revelation. John Murray, in his masterful commentary on the epistle to the Romans, writes, “It is to be observed that the apostle does not say that they do or fulfill the law and he [Paul] must have intentionally refrained from such an expression.”
The Need for Special Revelation
Sixth, Paul tells us in Romans 1:18 that the ungodly “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” This is why there is the need for special revelation. General revelation can never stand on its own as a means to redemption. Cornelius Van Til writes, following the wording of the first chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
The revelation of grace can be seen for what it is only it be seen in its own light. The light of grace outshines in its brilliance the light of nature as the sun outshines the moon. The kind of God that speaks in Scripture can speak only on His own authority. So the authority of Scripture is as basic as its necessity.
To this necessity and authority there must be added the sufficiency or finality of Scripture. When the sun of grace has arisen on the horizon of the sinner, the “light of nature” shines only be reflected light. Even when there are some “circumstances concerning the worship of God, the government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence,” they are to be so ordered “according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.” The light of Scripture is that superior light which lightens every other light. God’s covenant of grace is his final covenant with man. Its terms must be once for all and finally recorded “against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world.”
I suspect that advocates of general revelation/natural law are cheating when they claim they can build an ethical system independent of special revelation. They are maintaining that their moon (general revelation) is an independent light not in need of the reflective light from the sun (special revelation). While they are trying to establish the independence of general revelation, they are secretly using the sun’s rays to give light to their moon. As long as special revelation is at their side to direct them, general revelation advocates will be able to maintain they have a solution to today’s moral crisis in general revelation. Here’s a helpful story analogy:
[Those who reject special revelation] are like the Irishman who preferred the moon to the sun, because the sun shines in the day-time when there is no need of it, while the moon shines in the night time; so these moralists, shining by the borrowed, reflected light of Christianity, think they have no need of the sun, from whose radiance they get their pale moonlight.
The reason general revelation advocates can develop a general revelation moral theory, to change the analogy, is that they follow an existing set of blueprints. Biblical categories of justice and righteousness are so well known, because of a study of special revelation, that it is easy to look at general revelation and maintain that these same categories can be found there as well. Of course they can, as long as constant reference is made to the special revelation blueprints.
Social critic Kenneth Myers claims that “there is a biblical mandate for not attempting to solve all cultural and social problems with deductions from Scripture.” Where do we draw the line? Which “cultural and social problems” do we attempt to solve “with deductions from Scripture”? Where do we turn for an answer to this question, special or general revelation?
A whole‑Bible ethic is the light by which all social theories gain their reflected light. The further we move away from the light of Scripture, the darker our world will become. With man’s “cauterized and traumatized” sinful nature, there is no way that we can move in the direction of general revelation for the development of a comprehensive ethical social theory. “Such has been the deteriorating influence of sin that ‘the [work of the] law written on the heart’ and ‘the light of nature,’ although these remain, no longer suffice as the organ of signifying God’s will to man. A supernatural revelation has been necessary to reveal the law of duty, as well as to reveal the method of salvation through redemption.”
How Should We Then Live?
Atwood and Myers leave one significant question unanswered: How should we then live in the details? It was a question that Francis Schaeffer asked and left only partially answered. It’s one thing to say that Plato, for example, knew a lot about philosophy, but Plato thought homosexuality was the highest form of love. (This leaves us with another question: Whose view of general revelation are we to follow?) How much of Plato do we embrace? What standard will we use to determine if Plato was right or wrong about homosexuality or anything else? If we ascertain that Plato was wrong about homosexuality in terms of general revelation, at least three unanswered questions remain: (1) Are there any civil sanctions against public acts of sodomy revealed in general revelation? (2) If there are sanctions, what are they? Please give details. (3) If they can be found in general revelation, then show us how it’s done?