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 him 2, 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.