Natural Law and Theonomy

by Max Andrews

The following is a paper I completed three years ago for a course of Jurisprudence.


Epistemology may perhaps, be the most foundational thought process to humankind. Without knowledge, nothing may be accomplished or known. Governmental organization is inevitable in this world, and arguably by human nature. Because not everyone has the same view on every issue there was, is, and ever will be, perhaps through the epistemological, philosophical, and theological approach to government may humankind obtain more knowledge of human jurisprudential thought.

Natural law may be the most common view of jurisprudential thought because it is observable in society and has a great deal of evidence in its favor. This case is supported by the idea that humankind knows what is right because it is written on the heart of every human being. Theonomy, which may be viewed as a more radical step above natural law for a Christian is the applicability of God’s Law to today’s society. The cases for natural law and theonomy may seem naïve without any epistemological, philosophical, and theological evidences, but through meticulous study of these schools of thought, the goal of better understanding these ideas become more tenable.

Greg Bahnsen’s, By This Standard, Bahnsen takes an extreme approach to applying theonomy, or God’s Law, as an acceptable school of jurisprudential thought. Bahnsen approaches the issue of applying God’s Old Testament Laws and judicial action to today (Bahnsen, 1985, p. 271).

Bahnsen recognizes that most conservative social thinkers and many evangelicals have an eschewed view of the Old Testament Law and accuses them of being antinomians (Bahnsen, 1985, p. 298). His take on it is that man is not in the position to select what Laws to follow. God has commanded man to follow certain Laws, and just because some Laws may seem outrageous or inconsequential, they are still to be followed. Scripture does not give man the moral authority to make exceptions when it comes to the Law’s authority (Bahnsen, 1985, p. 134).

Perhaps the most common objection to theonomy that Bahnsen addresses is the misconception of the separation of church and state argument. There is an emphasis in this rebuttal and is greatly expounded upon. Bahnsen goes through and cites Scripture where the Bible clearly describes Israel’s governing body between Kings and Priests (Bahnsen, 1985, p.  287). There is a clear distinction between the different roles of the Kings and Priests, and Bahnsen suggests that this format of government will be the most efficient rule, and most Biblical rule of law.

Bahnsen states that Scripture does not give man the moral authority to make exceptions when it comes to the Law’s authority may be the paramount point to his argument, which is true. There are clear distinctions with the New Law, as to which Laws still apply, and the Bahnsen’s approach to the Law and how it is still applied today is heretical to the Christian faith.

Bahnsen’s most prominent problem occurs when he states,

If civil magistrates are indeed “ministers of God”, who avenge His wrath against evildoers, who better would know what kind and degree of punishment is appropriate for every crime than the Lord? And where would He make this standard of justice know but in His word? The penal sanctions for crime should be those revealed in the law of the Lord. That makes perfectly good sense (Bahnsen, 1985, p. 271).

Yes, this would make sense if the Bible never made clear whom Jesus Christ was and what was accomplished on the Cross. However, this is not the case. The purpose of the Law is to show sin (Romans 4:14-15, New American Standard Bible) and God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith (Romans 3:25, New American Standard Bible). “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17, New American Standard Bible). So perhaps these civil magistrates, or ministers of God as outlined in Romans 13, do have the authority by God to enforce the Law, if and only if it pertains to a civil situation or crime. Bahnsen uses the example of murder, stating that the violator will undergo the eternal wrath of God after his death and also a temporal and social penalty (Bahnsen, 1985, p. 272). Homosexuality is condemned in the Law and punishment is death. There is no crime against society for being homosexual, only against God, and that punishment has been appeased through Christ on the Cross and by having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Theonomy is not only theologically wrong to the Christian faith, but it is untenable. This idea may only stay an idea because it is not possible due to hermeneutical differences within the church. The old mainline churches have been culturally and institutionally displayed by a new plurality; yesteryear’s supposed fringes are taking over American Protestantism’s main square (Phillips, 2006, p. 107). The obvious intrusion of postmodernism ideology in the church makes it impossible to agree on any one issue. This is not stating that any one issue agreed on is necessarily absolutely true or absolutely false, it merely shows incongruity and incompetence within a ruling body. In a Gallup Poll by Newsweek, 55% of Christians (Evangelical Protestants, Non-Evangelical Protestants, and Catholics) believe the Bible is not literally accurate (Newsweek, 2004). Some Christian denominations ordain openly homosexual pastors; other denominations view this as unbiblical. The idea is only tenable if the church agreed the same on every issue within the bounds of the Bible, which can then lead to a Christian-fascist state, similar to governments of Islamic states in the Middle East.

Budziszewski’s, Written on the Heart approaches a philosophical, theological, and political approach to tackle the issue of relativism and absolutism.  The process of developing the case for natural law is done so in an evolutionary approach of major thinkers.  Budziszewski expounds on Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill and their approach and conclusion to the elemental and foundational thoughts and conclusion.

Aristotle first begins at a foundational, epistemological beginning.  Aristotle defines what is precisely good, and what happiness is (Budziszewski, 1997, p. 20).  When defining any issue, one must examine the pleasure, honor, virtue, and external good.  He brings into perspective the epistemological issue of defining what is moral, good, and right in natural law because without knowing what the definitions are may lead to tangents and difficulty in further scrutiny.

Thomas Aquinas brings Christian philosophy into the political scenario.  Aquinas believes that philosophy is the handmaid to theology; therefore, must be faithful and rational (Budziszewski, 1997, p. 54).  He takes the Christian approach and applies it to a regime design beginning with eternal law, which is the principle by which God governs the universe.  Eternal law is then divided into natural law, which is a reflection of eternal law.  A second division of eternal law is divine law, which is the Old, and New Laws.  These two subdivisions can then be applied to human law, the laws of nations and civil law.  Human law makes acts against society punishable (Budziszewski, 1997, p. 60).

John Locke further applies the moral and natural aspects of the issue to politics.  Locke believes that “man is good gone bad” opposed to “man is good”, “man is bad” (Budziszewski, 1997, p. 120).  He further expands the issue of natural law into social contract stating that even without government; there is no immediate implication of chaos because the state of human nature has a law of nature to govern (Budziszewski, 1997, p. 98).

John Stuart Mill comes from a different approach than the rest to natural law.  Mill claims that desire and happiness are the ultimate motivations for doing what is right.  He takes the metaphysical approach to these issues and defines them as “the desirable is nothing but what we desire” (Budziszewski, 1997, p. 141).  Consequentially, Mill believes in social hedonism, also known as utilitarianism as the basis for natural law.

Natural law may be the most foundational schools of jurisprudential thought in philosophy, theology, and applicability.  Many great thinkers of natural law are some of the most esteemed philosophers. Aristotle’s approach may be the most intriguing. Aristotle’s views are similar to Euripides in human nature being politically oriented, sensibility and application thereof (Aristotle, trans. 1963). This philosophy behind the case for natural law may arguably be the most abstract, yet it is still applicable for the argument.

Aquinas and Locke come from a Christian perspective and approach to the argument and case for natural law. As Christians, they both have a good foundation to philosophizing, and that is philosophy itself is a finite process subordinate to God and theology. Just as the sky is infinitely distant from the earth into outer space, the human mental cap to philosophy is the ceiling to any building. Therefore, it is more logical to philosophize subordinately to God in that one cannot get beyond God in thought or idea. This philosophy is similar to Immanuel Kant’s scholastic rationalist’s traditional view of God, the idea that the concept of God is natural to human reason and rational reflection (Wood, 1992, p. 397). There is great emphasis by Aquinas to God sovereignty; however, Locke seems to remove God from the equation. Locke’s idea of social contract seems to remove God from the Christian approach. Stating that man merely knows how to conduct behavior and govern without any other influences, just merely on man’s accord, seems to boosts man’s sovereignty; however, this does not negatively impact his case for natural law.

Mill’s approach is not essential to any sovereign but the individual. The idea of social hedonism is first established by individual hedonism. This idea is called consoling the nature of opinion (Joshi, 2000, p. 120) and believing the desires or something to be true. Utilitarianism ultimately sees man is the sovereign when it comes to governing because every decision comes down to the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Just because Mill’s idea behind his case for natural law is humanistic does not refute the argument and it is still valid.

Now that there has been a sufficient review and critique of the two jurisprudential schools of thought, natural law and theonomy, can these two views be esteemed more or rejected further. Coming from an epistemological approach to natural law really depends on the individual philosophy. Even if there is evidence suggesting sociological universality does not necessarily make it true, but it does make a compelling point greater than its converse. Natural law may be a more acceptable jurisprudential school of thought by different religions and cultures because its philosophy is not restricted to a certain religion and culture.

Approaching natural law from a theological perspective bears an even more compelling case for its applicability and acceptance. For a Christian there are absolutes, and the Bible is viewed as the absolute Word of God. The Bible addresses the issue of natural law when it states, “in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:15, New American Standard Bible). In context, Paul is addressing the fact that the Gentiles, not knowing about the Law of God that the Jews had, were still able to determine what is right and what is wrong because God has written a standard of right and wrong on man’s heart. This also provides a stronger support for the philosophical argument and the sociological universality in that these arguments are true because the absolute Word of God declares that it is true because it is written on every man’s heart.

Theonomy, God’s Law applied to today in a civil sense, may perhaps be a higher degree of natural law. More people may reject this school of thought because it is very exclusive in its conclusion, yet it applies its authority universally. Theonomy is an exact opposite of postmodernism and relativism in that it does not matter what you believe, God’s Law still applies to everyone. This is a compelling argument theonomists use, just because one may not believe in God, does not mean it does not apply to them. God still exists whether one wants to accept that or reject it He is still there. However, there is more room for scrutiny in theonomy. If theonomy is absolutely true, as is the case for the arguments in favor of theonomy, than its epistemological and philosophical approach are inclusive to its theology.

In conclusion, there are major differences between theonomy and natural law’s approach to applying these jurisprudential schools of thought to governing bodies today. Through the steps of attaining knowledge of the subject, the philosophy behind it, and the school of thought from a theological perspective, can society understand and apply these schools of thought if applicable.


Bahnsen, G. L. (1985). By This Standard. Tyler, Texas: Institute For Christian Economics.

Budziszewski, J. (1997). Written On The Heart. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Joshi, S. T. (2000). 10. S. T. Joshi, Ed.Atheism: A Reader (p. 120). Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

Phillips, K. (2006). 4. American Theocracy (p. 107). New York, New York: Penguin Group.

Wood, A. W. (1992). 13. P. Guyer, Ed.Cambridge Companion to Kant (pp. 397). New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.


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