Was Gordon Clark a Theonomist?

In answering such a question as “Are you a Theonomist?”, Gordon Clark’s own common procedure was to start with defining the terms. Following such a procedure we must first define what a Theonomist is if we are to answer the question “Was Gordon Clark a Theonomist?” Once having the definition we can compare Theonomy to Clark’s own writings to see if there is a match.

Defining “Theonomy” is more difficult than one might first assume. Self-avowed Theonomists regularly declare that what their opponents understand Theonomy to be is flawed, but their own varied efforts to define the term are often to blame for the misunderstanding.

We cannot define Theonomy (as some Theonomists do) simply as “God’s Law” as the translation of the Greek roots Theos and nomos combine to be. Defining Theonomy as such leaves open the question at issue – what is God’s law?, what does God require of us today? We must, as C. Jay Engel has explained, avoid the “Theonomist trap” (http://reformedlibertarian.com/articles/theology/combating-the-theonomists-trap/) “Theonomist Trappers” declare that other Christians’ views of the law are only non-Biblical “autonomy” (man’s law), but as Engel writes, “The great assumption made by the Theonomist Trapper is that in rejecting the applicability of the Mosaic Judicial Law, we are also rejecting God’s law as a whole.” In short, many Christians believe in the primacy of God’s revealed law over man’s self-made law, but there are yet different viewpoints about the applicability of God’s law, particularly the civil law.

Nor can we define Theonomy (as some Theonomists do) based on its hermenuetic, for its hermeneutic (that we should accept everything in the Old Testament not abrogated by the New Testament) is agreed to by many of Theonomy’s Reformed critics, but fails to answer that which is in dispute – that is, which laws are abrogated?

The best definition of Theonomy is not to be found in its Greek roots, nor in its hermeneutic, but in the “Theonomic Thesis.” It is this “Thesis” that distinguishes Theonomy from non-Theonomy. I believe Brandon Adams properly defines the Thesis when he writes that Theonomy is “the belief that all nations today are obligated to obey Israel’s judicial laws because they [those laws] have not been abrogated.” (https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/1689-federalism-theonomy/) In the 2015 debate between Joel McDurmon (a proponent of Theonomy) and J. D. Hall (a critic) McDurmon similarly defended the position, “Mosaic Civil Laws are obligatory for Civil Governments Today.” Though not explicitly stated in these definitions, it seems to me that what is implied is that ALL Mosaic civil laws are obligatory for civil governments today. This definition fits better in line with the rhetoric of Bahnsen of Theonomy as “the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail.”
Others disagree with this definition, believing Theonomy to only demand the obligation of nations today to obey SOME, rather than ALL, of Israel’s judicial laws. In fact, McDurmon, a leader of the Theonomy movement as president of American Vision, seems to have backed off of the “ALL” implied by the position he defended in the debate and has instead argued for the “SOME” position. He writes in 2016 that Theonomy is, “the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today.” And argues that “no Theonomist would say that all Mosaic civil laws remain obligatory.” (http://americanvision.org/13785/theonomy-a-simple-definition/)

It was a similar wavering between two incompatible positions which led John Robbins to critique Greg Bahnsen in the former’s article on “Theonomic Schizophrenia.” (http://trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=69) Robbins writes,

Let me exercise a little 1ogical rigor here, since Dr. Bahnsen fails to do so: Either “not one stroke of the law will become invalid until the end of the world” or “some changes have been made.” Dr. Bahnsen cannot maintain that the Old Testament food laws are still valid but not binding. Dr. Bahnsen cannot eat his Theonomic pork and have it too.

Whether Theonomy is the view that only SOME of the judicial laws remain obligatory or the view that ALL of them do, it is a view that is not in accord in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19, which states that NONE of them (in themselves) are obligatory. The Confession reads,

To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

So, did Gordon Clark agree to the Theonomic Thesis? Did Gordon Clark agree that nations today are obligated to obey Israel’s judicial laws, whether “SOME” or “ALL” of them?

Bahnsen seems to imply a link of Clark to Theonomy, footnooting Clark in No Other Standard, p. 69. The quote, which Bahnsen reproduced from Clark’s unpublished systematic theology (published later in Sanctification, p. 61) reads,

“The correct principle of interpretation is not the Baptist one of discarding everything in the Old Testament not reasserted in the New; but rather the acceptance of everything in the Old not abrogated by New Testament teaching.”

The implied link is that since Clark shares the same hermenuetic as Theonomy, he must be a Theonomist! But, although Clark held this hermeneutical view in agreement with Bahnsen, it does not mean that Clark held to the “Theonomic Thesis.” One could hold to the principle just quoted, but believe ALL the OT civil laws to be abrogated in the NT.

Rather than any evidence of Clark holding to the “Theonomic Thesis” (in either form; SOME or ALL), Clark held to the view of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He wrote in What Do Presbyterians Believe (p.183-184),

“The Old Testament also prescribed certain civil laws for the nation of Israel. The details of these laws are not obligatory on other nations, though the principles of equity that underlie them are.”

This should be of no surprise to anyone who has read Clark’s writings, for all over them he praises the Confession.
Further evidence of Clark’s opposition to Bahnsen’s view is found in correspondence between Clark and Robbins. https://douglasdouma.com/2017/02/18/clark-robbins-and-theonomy/ Here Clark refers to Bahnsen as “not in accord with the Reformed position.” Additionally, during my research into Clark’s life for The Presbyterian Philosopher, I was told by Clark’s son-in-law Dwight Zeller that Clark explicitly told him he was not a Theonomist.
So, by what “other standard” (as Bahnsen asks) would Clark propose to base contemporary civil laws if not basing them on the civil laws of Israel in the Old Testament? Clark holds, as we’ve seen, what he refers to as the “Reformed position”, specifically the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The Confession’s position is that of general equity – the application of the moral law written upon our hearts and summarized in the 10 commandments to determine civil laws in this New Testament era. (see: http://reformedlibertarian.com/articles/theology/1-cor-513-is-the-general-equity-of-deut-2221/ and http://www.peterwallace.org/old/essays/equity.htm). Note particular the quote from Calvin:

It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws. (Institutes IV.xx.15-16)

This is also Clark’s position. (The Confessions “not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require” is not, as some Theonomists hold, the idea that we should apply everything from the Mosaic civil law which we could possibly apply today, but refers rather to the idea that some civil laws today, based on the moral law, may happen to be equivalent to a civil law of the Old Testament.)

Noting his understanding of Clark’s position, Robbins writes to Clark on April 9, 1980:

My position is that of the Westminster Confession, which states that the general equity of the judicial laws binds us even today. I believe you also take this position in your 1957 essay on The Christian and the Law in which you cite passages from the Old Testament commanding the care of animals.

This essay of Clark’s is reproduced in Essays on Ethics and Politics. Clark writes at the end of the essay, “P. S. If you have chickens, a horse, or a pet dog, study Exodus 20:10; 23:5, 12: Deuteronomy 25:4; Proverbs 12:10; Matthew 12:11; and feed them.”

Exodus 20:10 -“But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates”
Exodus 23:5 – “If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him.”
Exodus 23:12 – “Six days thou shalt do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shalt rest: that thine ox and thine ass may rest, and the son of thy handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed.”
Deuteronomy 25:4 – “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn.”
Proverbs 12:10 – “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
Matthew 12:11 – “And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?”

Not all of these references are to the 10 commandments, but all refer to the moral laws which are summarized in the 10 commandments. Clark speaks not of the equity between modern and Mosaic civil laws, but of the principles of equity which underlie them. That is, the moral law. And so we must conclude that Clark agrees with the Confession and was not a Theonomist.

1 thought on “Was Gordon Clark a Theonomist?”

  1. “Next, if the cessation of the ritual is the most widely understood modification of the Old Testament, the increase in biblical ignorance since the seventeenth century seems to have erased from memory the point that the civil laws of Israel also are no longer meant to apply. God abolished the theocracy. Such is the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 21:33-45. … the detailed civil and criminal code of Israel is no longer binding.” – Gordon H. Clark, Essays on Ethics and Politics, p. 14.

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