Theonomy Primer: What Is It and How Does It Work?
Many faithful Christians today sense that the world has been turned upside down. Basic social values that once seemed immovable appear to be collapsing, particularly sexual ethics. Secular and Christian pundits alike are sounding alarms about the present state of American culture and civil order.
In the wake of these social realities, some Christians are asking tough questions. Do churches need to reexamine their message and mission? Have American Christians been wrong about the church’s responsibility and perhaps even the gospel?
In the past five years or so, a number of voices have begun to answer these questions. They say society’s ills can be traced, in part, to the church’s neglect of theonomic principles.
Today’s theonomists teach that the church has rightly preached Christ, justification by faith alone, and the need for reconciliation of individual sinners to God, but it has ignored the public aspect of the gospel. The whole gospel, they say, involves proclaiming and practicing God’s Old and New Testament law in society as the way to obtain God’s social and cultural blessings on earth. They teach that Christ obtains his victory over the world through the church’s obedience to God’s law and society’s implementation of God’s law across every domain, especially the self, the home, and the civil government.
Theonomists teach that the true mission of the church can be seen in the mandate God gave to Adam in the garden to take dominion over the earth and subdue it. Though Adam sinned and brought the curse upon the earth, Christ came to save his people, which includes enabling us to accomplish the original mandate given to Adam.
This is an important point to grasp. It means the church has not fully accomplished its mission by preaching the Lord Jesus, his law, and his gospel to every tribe and tongue for the conversion of souls and the building up of churches. Rather, the church must also work for transforming the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of our Lord and Christ. It does this by teaching the nations God’s law and working to implement it. They also believe the church will assert its dominion, promised by the gospel, through the masculine leadership of godly men in their homes, churches, and societies.
Theonomy began as an American Calvinistic movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. It developed from the work of R.J. Rushdoony, who established the Chalcedon Foundation. Later, Rushdoony’s son-in-law, Gary North, also promoted theonomy through teaching and writing, but Greg Bahnsen was probably the most articulate advocate of the older Theonomy. Today, similar versions of Theonomy are taught by public figures such as Doug Wilson, Jeff Durbin, and James White. Theonomists today are generally characterized by four elements: “General Equity Theonomy,” postmillennialism, dominionism, and migration. Consider the meaning of each of these terms.
‘GENERAL EQUITY’ THEONOMY
Theonomists hold that churches will advance Christ’s kingdom by implementing the “general equity” of Old Covenant judicial law among the nations today. While the historic Reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession do indeed refer to the “general equity” of Old Covenant judicial law as instructive today, theonomists seem to use that term differently.
Historic Reformed orthodoxy taught that only the transcendent moral and natural law contained in the Old Covenant judicial law remains binding across all times and peoples. For example, Francis Turretin said that the application of Old Covenant judicial law must be based on the Ten Commandments, the New Testament, and what can be observed as common practice across Gentile nations. Theonomists, however, appear to be willing to find universal principles of application apart from such hermeneutical controls.
Doug Wilson states, “Postmillennialists have a very optimistic view of the future of this world, believing that the Great Commission is going to be successfully fulfilled and that the nations will overwhelmingly turn to Christ.”
According to Crawford Gribben, postmillennialism is “the belief that Christ will return after the millennium has substantially reformed life on earth. Postmillennialists can be either apocalyptic or gradualist and vary in the extent to which they believe the millennium can be expedited by their own effort.”
Sometimes theonomic postmillennialists compare a believer’s progressive sanctification to postmillennialism. They say that just as individual believers are more and more transformed into the likeness of Christ over the span of their lives, so also the world will be transformed more and more into the likeness of heaven during this age. This analogy, however, seems to break down, since individual believers have been supernaturally regenerated while the world has not.
Dominionism is also a distinctive ingredient of theonomy. Dominionism teaches that while the Great Commission commands the preaching of Christ for the conversion of sinners and the implementation of God’s law in all societies, the inevitable result will be mankind’s dominion over all the earth, including the development of medicines, deep sea exploration, mining, music, and so forth.
Dominionism is closely connected to “Christian Reconstruction,” which Gribben defines as “the belief, developed in the 1960s, that the postmillennial coming of Christ will be preceded by the establishment of ‘godly rule’ on earth. This ‘godly rule’ will be marked by an unprecedented revival of Christianity and the international adoption of the Mosaic judicial and penal codes.”
Gribben also says,
The efforts to reform society by the application of divine law is voluntarist and libertarian until it achieves a substantial electoral mandate—for, even as some of its libertarian advocates admit, the program to turn American citizens into citizens of the kingdom of heaven must at some tipping point become a program of “coercive re-enchantment.”
A final aspect of Theonomy has to do with its practical efforts to implement its theology. Theonomy holds that a Christian society based on God’s law should be established in order to influence society so that a new Christendom might emerge from the rubble of any impending calamity.
People are migrating to the American Pacific Northwest for this very purpose. Gribben, quoting James Rawles, says, “The goal is to solidify a conservative Christian worldview through a demographic shift. Thus far it has been successful, and . . . with passing years we will further solidify a conservative Christian redoubt within the United States.”
Theonomy has a view of the gospel and of the church’s mission that goes beyond preaching Christ and him crucified and risen for the conversion of sinners and the building up of churches. It claims that for the church to be faithful, she must also work to implement the Old Testament judicial law at every level of society as part of society’s transformation into the kingdom of God on earth before Christ returns.
Theonomy is not monolithic, and it includes more nuance and variation than can be expressed in one article, but I have attempted to summarize some of the key features that have been promoted in the past five years.
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 See R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, 3 vols (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon, 1973); Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd ed. (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media, 2002).
 The material of today’s theonomists can be found largely on the internet. See Doug Wilson’s video “General Equity Theonomy,” Jeff Durbin’s video “What Is the Gospel of the Kingdom?,” James White’s video “Autonomy vs. Theonomy” along with similar videos, sermons, and blog posts.
 See Doug Wilson’s video, “General Equity Theonomy.” Compare with Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume 2, ed. by James T Dennison Jr., trans. by George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992-97), 165-167.
 See Doug Wilson’s video, “Postmillennialism,” James White’s video “Postmillennialism – Eschatology of Hope,” Jeff Durbin’s video “Postmillennialism with Skin on It.”
 Crawford Gribben, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest (New York, NY: Oxford, 2021), 153. For those interested in reading a descriptive account of the attempt to apply Theonomy in the American Pacific Northwest, I highly recommend this book.
 See Doug Wilson’s video, “Making Disciples or Taking Dominion?”
 Gribben, Survival and Resistance, 151.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 11.