Archive Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Natural Law Nota Bene The Two Kingdoms

Theocracy without Theonomy?

It is perhaps an easy mistake, but nevertheless a very bad one, to confuse theocracy and theonomy.1 It is also a mistake, on the other hand, to equate theocracy with ecclesiocracy or clerical rule. The magisterial Reformers were theocrats, believing as they did in the kingship of Christ over all earthly and heavenly orders, but they were not theonomists, because they denied that the letter of the Mosaic law must be established in every earthly polity; nor were they ecclesiocrats or clericalists, since they did not believe that the ordained ecclesiastical ministerium was the highest authority in any given polity.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the distinction between the theocracy of the magisterial Reformers and theonomy. The Reformers could hold their position of (1) non-theonomic (2) theocracy because of two complementary principles: first, because they adhered to the idea that all temporal matters were, well, temporal, and therefore temporary; such is the nature of the earthly kingdom. The Mosaic code was binding on the people of Moses–that is, Israel–and so expired with the Mosaic polity, just as any other civil code would expire together with the polity it was codified to govern.

But, second, what did not expire was the moral law, or the law of nature, of which the Mosaic administration was one concretization, specially tailored to the circumstances of its time and place. To this moral law, all earthly polities were bound, the Greeks, Romans, Swiss, and Germans no less than the Israelites. This moral or natural law, furthermore, was, in their view, theocratic, because it had God as its author and, after the Ascension, Christ as its enthroned king. Hence these two elements, natural law and a rigorous distinction between the  earthly and heavenly kingdoms, led perforce to theocracy without theonomy.

One place in which we can see the formulation of the disavowal of the continued use of the Mosaic code is in Philipp Melanchthon’s commentary on the thirteenth chapter of Romans. Here, the “law of nations” is bound to the law of nature as its standard for ensuring its legitimacy; this law is referred to, in turn, as “reason.”

But in this definition [of the magistrate] it is asked: whence we know what things have been done correctly? I answer: Paul here omits a longer discussion and speaks generally for the following reason: so that he may approve of the laws of all nations [gentium] concerning civil affairs–on the condition, however, that they agree with the law of nature [lege naturae]. For it is hence that he wishes things to have been done correctly in civil affairs. Therefore he hands on this third rule, namely: that the Christian is not bound to the Mosaic polity, but is permitted to make use of the laws of all nations that agree with reason [ratione]. Indeed, just as the Christian owes obedience to the magistrate that has charge of him2, as was said above in the clause “to the magistrate who has charge of you,” so he owes obedience to the laws that have charge of him, if they agree with reason. Wherefore it is permitted to hang thieves, it is permitted to divide inheritances by our laws, because the Gospel has not established a new earthly polity [novam politiam mundanam], but makes public declaration concerning eternal and spiritual life. And meanwhile it allows us to make use of diverse polities, just as of diverse intervals of days.  For because obedience to the magistrate who has charge over us is commanded, it is also commanded that we make use of the laws that have charge over us. And in the third chapter of Luke Roman military service is approved. And in Acts 15 the Apostles prohibit the Gentiles from being burdened with the polity of Moses. And Paul says: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.”3

More well known, I’d guess, is the congruent statement of John Calvin in Institutes 4.20.16, where he equates the moral law with eternal law and divine law and argues that that, rather than the particular applications of the moral law in the Mosaic code, must be adhered to in earthly commonwealths:

16. What I have said will become plain if we attend, as we ought, to two things connected with all laws—viz. the enactment of the law, and the equity on which the enactment is founded and rests. Equity, as it is natural, cannot be the same in all, and therefore ought to be proposed by all laws, according to the nature of the thing enacted. As constitutions have some circumstances on which they partly depend, there is nothing to prevent their diversity, provided they all alike aim at equity as their end. Now, as it is evident that the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this equity of which we now speak is prescribed in it. Hence it alone ought to be the aim, the rule, and the end of all laws. Wherever laws are formed after this rule, directed to this aim, and restricted to this end, there is no reason why they should be disapproved by us, however much they may differ from the Jewish law, or from each other (August. de Civit. Dei, Lib. 19 c. 17). The law of God forbids to steal. The punishment appointed for theft in the civil polity of the Jews may be seen in Exodus 22. Very ancient laws of other nations punished theft by exacting the double of what was stolen, while subsequent laws made a distinction between theft manifest and not manifest. Other laws went the length of punishing with exile, or with branding, while others made the punishment capital. Among the Jews, the punishment of the false witness was to “do unto him as he had thought to have done with his brother” (Deut. 19:19). In some countries, the punishment is infamy, in others hanging, in others crucifixion. All laws alike avenge murder with blood, but the kinds of death are different. In some countries, adultery was punished more severely, in others more leniently. Yet we see that amidst this diversity they all tend to the same end. For they all with one mouth declare against those crimes which are condemned by the eternal law of God—viz. murder, theft, adultery, and false witness; though they agree not as to the mode of punishment. This is not necessary, nor even expedient. There may be a country which, if murder were not visited with fearful punishments, would instantly become a prey to robbery and slaughter. There may be an age requiring that the severity of punishments should be increased. If the state is in troubled condition, those things from which disturbances usually arise must be corrected by new edicts. In time of war, civilisation would disappear amid the noise of arms, were not men overawed by an unwonted severity of punishment. In sterility, in pestilence, were not stricter discipline employed, all things would grow worse. One nation might be more prone to a particular vice, were it not most severely repressed. How malignant were it, and invidious of the public good, to be offended at this diversity, which is admirably adapted to retain the observance of the divine law. The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.

Why does any of this matter? Because distinctions matter, and because we should be desirous to understand the magisterial Reformers on their own terms rather than by conflation with a late modern movement to which their own thinking bears very little resemblance. Since they were in general better students of the classical tradition of legal and political philosophy than we are, we should make every effort to understand their reflection at the level of principle (whether we come to final agreement with those principles or not) to the greatest degree possible. Before opening our eyes, we do better first to stand on their shoulders than first to turn our backs.


  1. They both, after all, have to do with God and government.
  2. praesenti, that is, his proper magistrate, the one who is “present” to him in that respect. As Melanchthon had noted earlier, a citizen of Cologne does not owe obedience to the magistrate of Paris. That is the sense in which he is using “present” in this section. I have translated it has “to have charge of” through, which means “to have legitimate authority over.”
  3. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

6 replies on “Theocracy without Theonomy?”

Two things immediately come to my mind, which would help greatly if you could offer some clarification.

1) Greg Bahnsen gave a series of lectures in Canada about theonomic principles used among the Westminster Divines, as well as a number of scattered citations in favor of his theonomic thesis in his course on western philosophy (particularly it’s developing relationship with Locke’s political philosophy). So I know there were British puritans–perhaps not “magisterial”–who adhered to crucial principles of Bahnsen’s theonomic thesis. Yet you seem to argue hyperbolically as though they–these influential Divines & Puritans–were not “theonomists.”

2) there is also some similarity between one comment of yours and Bahnsen’s theonomic thesis, which perhaps you overlooked or misstated: when Bahnsen quotes the divines and puritans in favor of his theonomic thesis, he appeals to the WCF’s own distinction between the ceremonial law being “abrogated” but the judicial laws having “expired,” leaving the “general equity thereof” to be enforced. Bahnsen even demonstrated that the “general equity” of the judicial law was the moral law underlying its cultural forms. So when you commented that the whole mosaic economy dissolved (with which I would agree), except for the moral law, that immediately made me think that that is THE basis for Bahnsen’s theonomic thesis pertaining to penology (not that I agree with it entirely). The reason why he thought (as some divines apparently did) the general equity of the judicial law remained morally binding is because the judicial laws illustrated the underlying moral law of God in some fashion. But you seem to be arguing that this may not have been the case among the Reformers.

Admittedly, I agree with you that a theocracy need not “theonomy” (at least in the Bahnsen sense). Good article!

Thanks for the article! Thought provoking to be sure.

One thought/question: While no longer bound to the letter of the Mosaic law, should not the letter of the Mosaic law be of great benefit and use to any polity that is attempting to seek “the law of nature”?

After all, when one considers the historical location of Israel properly with the letter of Moses then one could better administer the “substance” (???) of that letter to their own historical location.

I’m attracted to “theonomy” yet have never understood it in the negative light that it was placed in the opening paragraph.

Just some thoughts.

Thanks again!

Hey Jon,

There were various Puritans who were theonomists, denying that the natural law was distinguishable from divine positive law, and the Covenanters were certainly of this sort in the generations after the Puritans. Paul Avis notes the history of all this here:

These were not “magisterial” Reformers in the proper sense, however, as they were mostly clerocratic, subordinating the magistracy to the biblical interpretation of the (Protestant) clergy. They were also, more simply, a few generations removed from Luther and Calvin. The Westminster Assembly did give a sort of place of influence to the Scottish delegates, who would have been theonomic, but they did not put their theonomic principles into the confession or catechism. Later Scottish adoption and interpretation of the Westminster may differ, of course, but the original body did not enact theonomic measures.

As to Bahnsen’s argument about “general equity,” you have to keep in mind his specific philosophy and how it would have interpreted “equity.” Bahnsen by in large denied natural law, and in doing, he was forced to argue for a sort of positivism. This is why he put so much emphasis on his hermeneutical principle of continuity– “Unless a law is explicitly repealed by the New Testament, then it continues.” But that principle only works if the distinction between moral and civil is left out. If it is brought in, then the civil laws would have no need to be repealed by different polities, since those polities had not enacted them in the first place.

Dear Jon,

Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid I’m not a close enough reader of Bahnsen to answer in any kind of detail. But would part of the issue be penology precisely, since the moral law doesn’t enjoin particular punishments? That’s part of Calvin’s point above. There’s also a relevant bit in one edition of Melanchthon’s commentary that I didn’t include above, as to the punishment of a thief, where he responds to the charge that the punishment of hanging is “unbiblical”:

Quicquid est contra verbum Dei peccatum est: suspendere furem est contra verbum Dei: ergo est peccatum. Respondeo ad maiorem: Quicquid est contra verbum Dei scilicet nos obligans. Minorem nego, quia est contra legem Mosaicam iudicialem, quae nos non obligat.

“Whatever is contrary to the Word of God is sin; to hang a thief is contrary to the Word of God; therefore it is sin. I reply to the major premiss: Whatever is contrary to the Word of God insofar as it obligates/binds us. I deny the minor premiss, because [hanging a thief] is contrary to the judicial law of Moses, which does not obligate/bind us.”

Does that help?



Your question is perfectly reasonable, but the specific role of the Mosaic polity in the history of the covenant has to be taken into account. Many “penal” laws were themselves ceremonial or at least intertwined with the ceremonial laws, particularly the punishments for impurities. This was all bound up with the role of “the land” as type of the messiah’s inheritance. The locus classicus for this is 1 Cor. 5:13 where Paul appeals to a death penalty text to argue for excommunication. Thus the “civil” law has become an ecclesiastical one.

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