Theonomy and the Westminster Standards (3)

PMT 2014-030b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

I am continuing a confessional defense of theonomy. We must now turn our attention to the swirling vortex of the debate: the Confession’s statement in 19:4:

IV. To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

Certainly a cursory reading of 19:4 sounds contra-theonomic. Does it not declare the judicial laws “expired”? Are we not informed that they are “not obliging any other now”? Does it not reduce the concrete judicial laws to a vague “general equity”? This certainly appears anti-theonomic. But looks are deceiving.

Just as we must understand the occasional nature of the New Testament epistles if we are to more properly understand and more deeply appreciate them, so must we understand the historical setting of the Westminster Assembly if we are to grasp the reasoning of the divines. We are all children of our times; we all speak from our historical contexts. And so it is with the Westminster Standards: they were not alien intrusions into a placid life of political indifference. In fact, the calling of the Assembly itself was fraught with political significance and urged on the basis of political pressures.

Standard Bearer: Festschrift for Greg Bahnsen
(ed. by Steve Schlissel)
Includes two chapters by Gentry on Revelation and theonomy
See more study materials at:

The Early Reformers

First, the theonomic inclination was clearly established among the early Reformers.

John Calvin

Calvin’s Geneva — though neither perfect nor wholly consistent — rightly serves as an experimental model of theonomic political theory in practice. Calvin had strong predilections toward the application of God’s Law to contemporary socio-political matters — his much abused statement at 4:20:14 in his Institutes notwithstanding.

In his commentary on the much maligned thirteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, John Calvin (1509-64) noted: “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church.” He even scathingly criticizes those who would oppose his position: “Some scoundrel or other gainsays this, and sets himself against the author of life and death. What insolence is this. . . . God has one pronounced what is His will, for we must needs abide by His inviolable decree.”

As Philip Schaff notes: “Calvin’s plea for the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy by death, stands or falls with his theocratic theory and the binding authority of the Mosaic code. His arguments are chiefly drawn from the Jewish laws against idolatry and blasphemy, and from the examples of the pious kings of Israel.”

Martin Bucer

Bucer argued:

But since no one can describe an approach more equitable and wholesome to the commonwealth than that which God describes in His law, it is certainly the duty of all kings and princes who recognize that God has put them over His people that they follow most studiously His own method of punishing evildoers.

Bucer immediately annexes to this statement a list of capital crimes from the Mosaic legislation, and then notes a little later that the king must “for every single crime” impose “those penalties which the Lord Himself has sanctioned.”

John Knox

Knox commented on Deuteronomy 17 as follows (please note again: the modern theonomist does not follow his exposition; nevertheless his presumption of the authoritative and binding applicability of God’s Law is clear):

If any thinks that the fore written law did bind the Jews only, let the same man consider that the election of a king and appointing of judges did neither appertain to the ceremonial law, neither yet was it merely judicial; but that it did flow from the moral law, as an ordinance having respect to the conservation of both the tables…. [Consequently] it is evident, that the office of the king or supreme magistrate, has respect to the moral law, and to the conservation of both tables.

Ulrich Zwingli

Swiss Reformer and successor to Ulrich Zwingli, Johann Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) wrote that “the substance of God’s judicial laws is not taken away or abolished, but the ordering and imitation of them is placed in the arbitrement of good Christian princes.” In chapter 30 on the Civil Magistrate Bullinger wrote of the civil ruler:

Let him govern the people, committed to him of God, with good laws, made according to the Word of God in his hands, and look that nothing be taught contrary thereunto. . . . Therefore let him draw forth this sword of God against all malefactors, seditious persons, thieves, murderers, oppressors, blasphemers, perjured persons, and all those whom God has commanded him to punish or even to execute.

Thus, we discover in these influential Reformers a clear pattern of theonomically-inclined socio-political theory. These are deep tributaries feeding the Puritan stream of thought.

Four Views on the Book of Revelation (ed. by Marvin Pate)
Helpful presentation of four approaches to Revelation
See more study materials at:

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