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Let’s Talk About “Theonomy”

April 6th, 2021 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

Occasional Mere O contributor Andrew Walker has published a muddled and confused essay about theonomy over at TGC. Given the nature of the errors, I wanted to take the time to lay out the issues with the piece in hopes that it will improve the conversation happening amongst reformed evangelicals about the nature of church-state relations, Christianity’s shaping of the public square, and broader questions concerning political authority and religious doctrine.

1. Walker is correct to argue that the Decalogue is a distillation of the natural law but, like Professor VanDrunen whose work he cites, he misunderstands what this means for natural law.

The Protestant tradition has long held that the Decalogue is a summary of the natural law. (Read Eric Hutchinson on this from our archives.) The great Protestant jurist and theorist Johannes Althusius summarizes the idea well, saying that, “The Decalogue has been prescribed for all people to the extent that it agrees with and explains the common law of nature for all peoples.” Indeed, Althusius pushes the matter even more aggressively, arguing that the principles taught in the Decalogue are central to the political health of any society:

The precepts of the Decalogue… infuse a vital spirit into the association and symbiotic life that we teach, that they carry a torch before the social life that we seek, and that they prescribe and constitute a way, rule, guiding star, and boundary for human society. If anyone would take them out of politics, he would destroy it; indeed, he would destroy all symbiosis and social life among men. For what would human life be without the piety of the first table of the Decalogue, and without the justice of the second? What would a commonwealth be without communion and communication of things useful and necessary to human life? By means of these precepts, charity becomes effective in various good works.

Pay careful attention to how Althusius argues here. It is typical for Christians to divide the Ten Commandments into two tables, as Althusius has here, with the first concerning our duties to God (piety) and the second to our neighbor (justice).

If Althusius wanted to, he could easily argue that it is only the second table that applies to politics. But that is not what he does nor is it what we should do. He says that both tables apply to political life and, indeed, he asks “what would human life be without the piety of the first table?” There can be no true relationships of mutuality and care, according to Althusius, without both piety and justice. Establishing such relationships is, in his view, the entire point of politics. And so we need both tables to be part of our common shared life within political society.

This is important because VanDrunen and Walker alike argue that the Natural Law has no religious content, that it is religiously neutral. This is how they justify the strict bifurcation between religious doctrine and political law. But if, as they both concede, the Natural Law is summarized by the Ten Commandments, then they cannot separate the first and second tables and then say “only the second applies to politics.” The tradition won’t allow it for one thing: Calvin argues that the command to honor one’s fathers and mothers implies honoring God, for piety toward parents entails piety toward God, which ties together piety and justice, first table and second table. Moreover, there is no biblical warrant for breaking the decalogue in half in this way and then denying political relevance to the first table.

2. If the natural law is found in Romans 1, then claims about God are necessarily part of the natural law.

Another common biblical text that is used to support the idea of natural law is Romans 1. Indeed, Walker himself has cited Romans 1 as containing natural law teaching on multiple occasions.

But, of course, if Romans 1 is talking about natural law, then it contains religious teaching, for the prohibitions concerning sexual ethics at the end of Romans 1 flow, in Paul’s thinking, out of what he says about God in 1:18-20. In this way, Paul’s reasoning in Romans 1 would seem to echo the tacit structure of the decalogue, which sees justice as being intertwined with piety.

Walker and VanDrunen both wish to retain a religiously neutral public square that still pays fealty to certain moral norms traditionally associated with Christianity. They are, in this respect, both adherents to the neo-conservative tradition that Ross Douthat wrote about recently. The difficulty is that the norms they want are historically associated with Christianity (or monotheism, if we’re being generous) for a reason. And yet their principles make it very hard for them to move directly between claims about God and claims about public life. They deal with this in different ways—VanDrunen via a recapitulation of the southern presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church and Walker via a more straightforward appeal to historic Baptist teaching. But in both cases their principles do not allow them to appeal to God as a public authority that can shape and influence law. Therefore, they wrap those norms up in language of natural law so as to justify them apart from appeals to God. But this doesn’t work because religious doctrine does not exist at a remove from nature.

3. Constraining the natural law in the ways that Walker does in this piece is disastrous for the church’s public witness.

One of Walker’s arguments in this piece is that theonomy attacks religious liberty and therefore undermines the power of religious dissent by making such dissent illegal. Historically, however, this is a hard case to make. While it is true that Christian states have done many evil things to suppress religious liberty, Walker’s solution is worse than the problem it seeks to address because it creates a rift between the sphere of life able to be governed by “religious” teaching and the sphere of life that is guided by non-religious, secular teaching. As such, it inoculates much of life to the full weight of divine revelation. It “denies” to the government the possibility of “evangelical obedience,” is how Oliver O’Donovan makes the point in Desire of the Nations.

This is not an academic point. As mentioned above, an older form of Walker’s doctrine here is the revised version of the reformed two kingdoms view as defined and articulated by Presbyterians active in the American south in the 19th century. They made the same move VanDrunen does in his work, proposing a strict divide between public moral norms, which are governed by a kind of secularized natural law shorn of religious content, and the religious life of the church. The church was authorized to speak to religious or spiritual matters, but not to matters concerning public life outside the church. This principle, called the spirituality of the church, had the effect of insulating issues of public injustice, such as slavery in the context of 19th century southern Presbyterianism, from the moral teachings of Christian faith.

It is not irrelevant that Walker’s echoing of the 19th century Presbyterians is occurring in a context in which racial justice is once again at the center of our national consciousness, and indeed, Baptist eccelesial life. When we refuse to bring the full weight of the natural law to bear in our public life, injustice naturally follows—this is simply Althusius, after all.

My great fear with Walker’s argument is that this understanding of the natural law leaves us with a naked public square that cannot be addressed by Christian teachings because such teachings have been judged to belong to “religious” matters and cannot inform public justice. If the two tables of the Decalogue are, in fact, indissoluble, then when we omit piety from public life by omitting the first table from the public square then it would seem to follow that we lose the concern of the second table as well, which is justice.

4. We have other options for understanding political theology aside from those offered by Gary North or Roger Williams.

A further problem with Walker’s piece is that it functionally labels nearly every non-Baptist understanding of church-state relations and Christianity’s relevance to political life as “Christian Reconstruction.” This sentence in particular is inexcusably broad: “Christian Reconstruction refers to the broader theological and cultural program of uniting culture more explicitly to Christian moral foundations.” By this definition, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and most forms of magisterial Protestantism teach “Christian Reconstructionism.”

In reality, the key arguments driving the Reconstructionists are their very particular and quixotic reading of the Mosaic law and the question of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Walker does, to his credit, develop this particular point at some length, but because of sentences like that quoted above, the whole piece becomes quite confused: any definition of “Christian Reconstruction” that encompasses political theologies as diverse as Catholic Integralism, Protestant establishmentarianism, many Augustinian liberals, and actual reconstructionists is hopelessly overbroad.

As the surveys quoted above demonstrate, the magisterial protestants didn’t argue for Christendom by assuming extreme continuity between the Old and New Covenants. Indeed, as Eric Hutchinson and Adam Carrington have both shown in respective essays for Ad Fontes, they were very careful not to argue what the theonomists argue.

5. There is a core irony hardwired into Baptist political theory that Baptists need to be more frank about.

The Baptist view of politics articulated by Walker often attempts to present itself as being distinct from the various Christian theories of politics in which religious doctrine is publicly enforced by overeager and unreliable magistrates. And yet at bottom the Baptist claim has the effect of denying many religious traditions the right to practice their faith in public to the extent that doing so involves public commitments, rituals, habits, and so on.

In one sense this is perhaps tautological, but it’s a point that needs to be made if only to puncture a certain sense of inevitability and superiority that often pervades Baptist critiques of Reformed and Roman political theory, which acts as if everything was a mess under Christendom and it was only when Roger Williams came along and invented the Baptist doctrine of religious liberty that the church was able to really set about its work. All of us are seeking to practice our faith consistently in public life; Baptist doctrine has simply defined this in a way that tacitly makes religiously neutral magistrates part of their religious teaching. Jonathan Leeman is admirably frank about this point. The conversation between proponents of Baptist political theology and Reformed or Catholic political theology would improve immensely if Leeman’s candor became more common.

6. One can retain a strong emphasis on religious liberty without making the mistakes Walker makes in this essay.

Let us consider the pragmatic case for this sort of Baptist take on political liberalism, which is the strongest case they have, I think. When Christians are fighting wars of religion with one another, something has gone deeply wrong in the body of Christ. The Baptist approach allows us to avoid such a fate by creating secularized political systems, such that it becomes incredibly difficult for two nations to go to war with one another on explicitly religious grounds—indeed, if both nations accept the Baptist view on this matter it becomes impossible to do so.

Yet we should move more slowly here and ask a simple question: Is it the case that the only way of retaining the sorts of liberties Walker rightly wishes to preserve is to embrace the Baptist answer to these questions?

In Politics and the Order of Love, Eric Gregory argues that the answer is “no.” Working from a close reading of Augustine, Gregory contends that many of the individual liberties that are prized by classical liberals can be justified not on the negative basis that Walker and others routinely rely upon, but on a positive account of political love.

Simply put, loving our neighbor means, to some degree, being willing to allow them space to sincerely believe things we believe are wrong. This demand doesn’t stretch to infinity just as other liberal rights do not. But it does provide us with a built-in instinct to respect things such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and so on. By anchoring his argument in a positive account of love rather than a negative account built on the pragmatic failures of alternative views, Gregory’s argument has a much firmer foundation. (I have written more extensively on Gregory on the main site.)

In addition to Gregory’s account of this problem, Walker could also easily draw upon Thomas Aquinas, who likewise provides an account for how a version of religious freedom can be preserved within a broadly Christian society:

“Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred.”

In any case, one can preserve the goods Walker rightly wants to preserve without needing to tacitly endorse a naked public square, as Walker’s piece must inevitably do given the way he has framed the debate.

Update: An earlier version of this piece misspelled Prof. VanDrunen’s name. I apologize for the error.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).