One of the more profound and, in my opinion, helpful critiques of theonomy was written by Meredith Kline in volume 41 (1978/79) of the Westminster Theological Journal. In this article called “Comments on an Old-New Error”, Kline is interacting with Greg Bahnsen’s 1977 publication, Theonomy in Christian Ethics. There are quite a few points in Kline’s article to discuss, but one major critique he makes is that theonomy’s version of postmillenialism and politics goes against the grain of the common grace covenant God made with Noah and “every living creature” in Genesis 9. I’ve added [ ] brackets to [hopefully!] make it easier to read. It’s not the easiest article to read, but it is worth the effort! (Note: “Chalcedon” is a referent to the 1970’s Chalcedon Foundation, which was an advocate of theonomy.)
First, Kline explains theonomy’s brand of postmillenial politics:
Along with the hermeneutical deficiencies of Chalcedon’s [version of] postmillennialism there is a fundamental theological problem that besets it. And here we come around again to Chalcedon’s confounding the biblical concepts of the holy and the common. As we have seen, Chalcedon’s brand of postmillennialism envisages as the climax of the millennium something more than a high degree of success in the church’s evangelistic mission to the world [as with historic postmillenialism]. An additional millennial prospect (one they particularly relish) is that of a material prosperity and a world-wide eminence and dominance of Christ’s established kingdom on earth, with a divinely enforced submission of the nations of the world to the government of the Christocracy. For example, appealing to Isaiah 60:3, 10, 12, Bahnsen declares that during the millennial period the kings of the Gentiles will either minister unto God’s kingdom or they will utterly perish (p, 428).
Next, Kline gives a critique based on Genesis 9:
The insuperable theological objection to any and every such chiliastic [millenial] construction is that it entails the assumption of a premature eclipse of the order of common grace. That order was formalized in the post-diluvian [post-flood] world by the divine covenant of Genesis 9 and by the terms of that covenant it is in force as ‘long as the earth endures,’ that is, until the cosmic re-creation at the consummation (cf. 2 Pet, 3: 7, 11-13). A basic and essential structure of that common grace order is the institution of the common state [cf. Romans 13]. This civil institution, unlike the nation Israel, which was separated unto a distinctive institutional identity as a holy, redemptive, theocratic kingdom, is not a holy but rather common institution, with its citizenry a mixture of both the holy and the non-holy. It [the civil institution of the state] does not, as did the Israelite kingdom, possess special guarantees of a material prosperity unfailingly equal to the measure of its obedience to the law of God nor does it enjoy the promise of an ultimate perfecting of its beatitude. Its prospect is that of eventual termination rather than consummation. And meanwhile it must run its course within the uncertainties of the mutually conditioning principles of common grace and common curse, prosperity and adversity being experienced in a manner largely unpredictable because of the inscrutable sovereignty of the divine will that dispenses them in mysterious wisdom.
In this last paragraph I’ll quote, Kline explains that the temporary and typical theocracy of Israel in the Old Testament existed in the context of the common grace covenant of Genesis 9:
The existence of Israel as a holy kingdom with special guarantees of prosperity constituted an intrusive exception within the pattern of common grace nations. But the Israelite theocracy was only a limited, local kingdom, serving as merely a typical [a type] model of the ultimate universal theocracy, and hence it did not effect the abolishment of the common grace order [established by God in Genesis 9]. That order with all its common nations was able to coexist with theocratic Israel. But millennial theories that attribute to the pre-consummation [before Christ’s final coming] stage of the history of the messianic age the fulfillment of the prophecies of the visible, universal, holy, messianic theocratic kingdom postulate the abrogation of the common grace order prior to the consummation. …God committed himself in this ancient [Genesis 9] covenant to maintain that order as long as the earth endures.
Again, there’s more to the argument, but I think this is one helpful critique of theonomy’s postmillenial politics: it runs roughshod over the post-flood creational covenant of Genesis 9. Perhaps I’ll come back to other parts of this article later.
For now, here’s the citation: Meredith Kline, “Comments on an Old-New Error” in Westminster Theological Journal 41.1, pages 172-179.
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