The term “theonomy” (divine law as the basis for civil law) is an intriguing concept. While theo-cracy (which is not the same as theo-nomy) rightly makes most of us nervous, the idea that Old Testament law might provide inspiration for our civil laws on issues of justice goes at least as far back as our Westminster Confession.
Rousas J. Rushdoony’s book “Institutes of Biblical Law” is perhaps the most famous articulation of the concept that God’s law for Israel ought to form the basis for human law. Significantly, Rushdoony doesn’t try to resurrect the laws on cleanliness, kosher food or sacrifice, since the New Testament clearly sets these aside. But he does provide a thought-provoking vision of how ancient biblical law could rightly inform the way we formulate law today.
Caveats: Rushdoony was too hot for even the PCA to handle, so read him like you would read Mao or Machiavelli, to glean for whatever you find useful. His work is fairly dated (circa 1970) and highly anecdotal. Sometimes he is predictably right-wing; sometimes he may surprise you in that some of his definitions of injustice could be echoed by progressives as well. Although he covers the whole of biblical law, most of his material is categorized into chapters on each of the Ten Commandments.
The following is a summary of some highlights from his book, in my own words, with only a few direct quotes:
If the basic needs of society aren’t met by a tithe-paying public, they will be paid for by a tyrant state.
One God means one law, not a multiverse of law orders. When we deny absolute law, the only universal law possible is coercive force. Molech worship is state worship; it demands all, womb to tomb. The Molech state is a product of apostasy, when people reject God. If law is severed from righteousness and truth, the result is either anarchy or totalitarianism.
Law will always require inequality, but will it be reward for good and punishment for evil, or reward for the inequalities of injustice and evil when they triumph?
The First Commandment requires us to recognize no other power as true and legitimate. “Legality” = rules of a game made up by state and courts, as opposed to “law” = God-given order.
The altar is a witness to capital punishment. If this is not true, then God has been needlessly worshipped by wantonly shed blood. To have atonement without death, to bypass the altar, sets up a graven image of self-salvation. Law is a form of warfare against graven images; it makes no peace with evil.
“Equality is a mathematical term” – how do we apply a math abstraction to humans?
Amalek may have been the Hyksos, the Asiatic shepherds who conquered Egypt during the biblical patriarchal age. Amalek is a symbol of both war with God and of perverse violence (terrorism).
If you deny private property (the earth is YHWH’s), you must also deny the state all right to own or control property. Property is a form of power; it is also basic to freedom. Property is under attack by individuals, corporations and the state. Egyptians were required to make restitution for slavery of Israel. Forgiveness without repentance and restitution is a subsidy to and an acceptance of evil.
Coercion against evildoers is a required and inescapable duty of civil authority. The Law requires corroboration of testimony; otherwise one could simply coerce the accused. Lie detectors are an invasion of privacy that produces forced confessions. The Bible does not permit torture or forced confessions.
Biblical law “asserts the liability of the bystander.” We rob our neighbor of their property by our neglect. We become consenting accomplices by refusing to render aid (e.g. rape victim cries out). God shortens the life of a nation that condones fraud, which is a legitimate government concern. The individual needs protection both from the criminal and from state depravity.
“No godly man has the right to mortgage his future indefinitely.” Basic to the concept of Sabbath rest is debt-free living. Long-term debt is a clear violation of Sabbath.
If a dumb ox can be held responsible, so can a dumb human.
Rushdoony makes some valid points, which should lead us to look at the ancient text with fresh imagination, regardless of whether we agree with Rushdoony’s conclusions. While we are not strictly bound by Hebrew laws that are not reaffirmed by the moral laws in the New Testament, they are still God’s word to us, even if they require translation into our present context. These ancient civil laws are guides or divine clues that we do well to take to heart as we seek to do justice in our society today.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 28 years, is currently serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill., and as adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill.