Back in March of 2000 Greenville Theological Seminary hosted a conference on the sufficiency of Scripture at which time consideration was given to the subject of Theonomy. The appointed antagonist to the theonomic thesis remarked that the often quipped slogan “either theonomy or autonomy” commits the informal fallacy of a false dichotomy. It was argued that there is another option that is overlooked by theonomists, namely that of general revelation. It was contended that with the passing of the Old Covenant civil magistrates are to govern themselves by the light of nature, or God’s general revelation that is communicated to all men apart from Scripture. I have found this line of reasoning most troublesome on many accounts. At the very least, if general revelation is binding upon civil magistrates then it is because it is God’s law – in which case any possible appeal to general revelation would be theonomic in nature!
Man knows many things through general revelation. He knows God exists and that His wrath abides upon him. Man knows through conscience that it is wrong to murder, just as he knows it is wrong to tell a lie. Consequently, general revelation makes all men culpable before God because through general revelation men have warrant for their true beliefs regarding their sin against the moral law written on their hearts. Notwithstanding, general revelation is as impotent as it is powerful. Although general revelation communicates truth that is known by all men everywhere, leaving them without excuse, it cannot equip or enable men to justify what is known through that revelation. Although all men everywhere know it is wrong to murder, it is impossible to justify that knowledge apart from Scripture. Apart from Scripture man’s formal justification for what he knows reduces to subjectivism and ultimately skepticism. Added to this, civil magistrates are not only to be concerned with a sound justification for their ethical paradigms, they must also concern themselves with a justification to punish certain wrong doings and not others.
Theonomy is concerned with three irreducible questions, which anti-theonomists cannot answer in an epistemologically satisfactory manner:
- Which sins should civil magistrates punish?
- What should those punishments be?
- How does one justify the answers to the first two questions?
Finally, if Theonomy ought to be exchanged for general revelation, then the necessary implication is that God’s general revelation has changed over time or else God’s revelation has contradicted itself over time. After all, if general revelation today tells us that rapists are no longer to be put to death, then either general revelation has changed over time or else it contradicted special revelation under Moses! However, if general revelation has not changed over time and God's two forms of revelation have never contradicted themselves, then why discard the Old Testament case laws? In fact, why not rely on the more explicit form of law, which is contained in the only form of revelation to which we may appeal to justify laws in general and ethical laws in particular.
General revelation was never intended to inform mankind of the transgressions that are to fall under the jurisdiction of civil magistrates. Consequently, general revelation under Moses did not inform mankind that convicted rapists should be put to death anymore than it informs mankind today that convicted rapists should live. The role of general revelation has always been complimentary to that of Scripture's revelation, in that general revelation is "general" - for it convicts mankind of sin that violates the moral law; whereas special revelation, as contained in Scripture, informs us of the sins that are punishable by civil magistrates and to what degree.
The non-theonomic thesis cannot justify any civil laws in any concrete fashion let alone the sanctions, if any, that are to accompany sins. At the very least, the non-theonomic thesis cannot prove that it is wrong to employ theonomic laws without implying either that God’s revelation has changed over time or that God’s revelation contradicted itself at least for a time. Consequently, the anti-theonomist’s appeal to general revelation at the expense of written revelation contradicts God’s immutability and truthfulness.
Theonomy is most often construed as harsh. However, apart from theonomy, no argument with defensible premises can be levied to combat too harsh of punishments in a fallen world! For instance, how would the anti-theonomist combat a civil magistrate that determined stealing a loaf of bread was a crime worthy of death? The epistemologically conscious theonomist has an answer for too strict of laws in a fallen world; whereas the anti-theonomist is left to appeal to an idiosyncratic sense of justice, which reduces to subjectivism, arbitrariness and knowledge falsely called.
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