Editor’s note: This is the second part
of a three-part article. RFI plans to make the entire article available in booklet form after the third part appears in The Outlook.
Theonomy was a theological position that received some attention in the 1970s to 1990s among some Reformed and Presbyterian churches. It still exists today, though its influence and popularity have waned. Theonomy was a component of a movement known as Christian Reconstructionism. The goal of Christian Reconstructionism was the reformation of civil society according to biblical norms. Theonomy meant the promotion of the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil laws for contemporary governments. There was a distinctive orientation towards the law, though it must be added that, in principle, this had nothing to do with the grounds of the personal salvation of believers. Theonomists/Christian Reconstructionists were also avowed Calvinists, Reformed in their doctrine of salvation.
Christian Reconstructionism and theonomy also made headway into the Canadian Reformed Churches, particularly in northern Alberta in the early 1990s. I distinctly remember being told by advocates of this movement that the theonomists were repeating the emphases of traditional Liberated Reformed theology. However, critiques by Richard Aasman and others in the Reformed and Presbyterian community proved to be compelling enough, and soon the movement fell off the radar in our churches.19 We may also note that it is inaccurate to state that Schilder, Holwerda, and other Liberated luminaries were theonomic in their understanding of the Old Testament Mosaic civil laws. Furthermore, while holding that Christianity does engage culture, the Liberated tradition, especially as represented by Schilder, has been more about cultural formation than transformation.20 These emphases differ from those of theonomic Christian Reconstructionism.
It is not a secret that many of the leading figures in the Federal Vision movement have, in the past, been associated with theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism. Men like John Barach, Randy Booth, Tim Gallant, Peter Leithart, and James Jordan have at some point or other either been advocates of theonomy or associated with it, even if today they claim to repudiate it. Other figures who share some Federal Vision distinctives and have a theonomist background include Steve Schlissel and Andrew Sandlin. To be fair, not all theonomists past or present are advocates of FV or are associated with it in a meaningful way. Nor are all FV advocates theonomists. However, a significant number are or have been. Is this a coincidence?
Guy Prentiss Waters observed that the theory and method of Scripture interpretation (hermeneutics) utilized by FV advocates echoes that of theonomy. Since the movement emerged from theonomic circles this should not be surprising. He concluded:
We have seen that the hermeneutic employed by many FV proponents resonates with theonomic conceptions of covenantal continuity. For all of theonomy’s care to emphasize its espousal of the necessity of personal regeneration, of biblical preaching, and of personal piety, the published writings of theonomist writers have generally emphasized the outward, the external and the corporate. It is this emphasis that has occasioned FV proponents’ recasting of biblical religion along predominantly outward, external, and corporate lines.21
Waters mentioned further how Christian Reconstructionism is generally acknowledged to be a failure and how its advocates lay that failure at the feet of Protestant scholastic confessionalism.22 Hence, the FV represents what he calls a “chastened theonomy, an attempt to reconstruct the project of theonomy to accommodate its greater goal of cultural transformation.”23 Looking backward, is that an emphasis found in the Canadian Reformed tradition? And looking forward we might ask: is that where we want to go?
Rejection or Flattening of the Law/Gospel Distinction
A clear distinction between law and gospel has always been a feature of classic Reformed orthodoxy. This distinction functions within the doctrine of justification. Within the doctrine of sanctification, there has always been a recognition that there is overlap and interplay between the indicative (what God has done) and the imperative (what God commands). However, when it comes to how we are declared right with God, the Reformed have not joined together what God has separated. Law and gospel must be distinguished.
However, advocates of the FV have oftentimes rejected the law/gospel distinction. For instance, Steve Schlissel has said, “This law/Gospel dichotomy is a false one. It is unbiblical.”24 Similarly, Rich Lusk wrote:
Luther argued that any demands God made upon us fell into the category of “law” and could only condemn. By contrast, anything God gave us was “gospel” and came with no strings attached. Calvin paid lip service to this law/gospel antithesis, even though it was in fundamental tension with his covenantal approach to Scripture. Unfortunately, Calvin’s small mistake has grown into a tragedy of huge proportions.25
According to Lusk, Calvin merely paid lip-service to Luther on this point. Nevertheless, even this lip-service was a “small mistake.”
The Joint Federal Vision Statement attempts to be more careful. It says that all of God’s Words have a gracious nature and that any passage “can be heard by the faithful as good news” and “any passage will be heard by the rebellious as intolerable demand.” The distinction is reduced to redemptive-historical categories. The law is spoken of as being the old covenant era and the gospel “being the time when we enter our maturity as God’s people.” The distinction is also placed in the realm of the human heart, rather than in the text of Scripture. In these ways, those FV advocates who have not rejected the law/gospel distinction outright have flattened it out.
To evaluate this, let us begin with what our Reformed confessions say. In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that we know our sin and misery from the law of God. The law has the character of demand. Through its demands the law drives us to Christ. From where do we know the revelation of Jesus Christ? In Lord’s Day 6, we discover that it is in the gospel. Lord’s Day 7 explains that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes everything promised us in the gospel. The gospel has a promissory character. The law/gospel distinction with respect to our salvation functions explicitly in the Heidelberg Catechism. The distinction was recognized by Liberated commentator J. Van Bruggen in his commentary on Lord’s Day 2:
The word “Law” in Scripture denotes everything whereby God communicates his demand to us and which tells us what we must do to be saved. The word “gospel” means everything in which he unfolds his promise and tells us what he did, does, and will do to save us.26
Van Bruggen here acknowledged the distinct difference between the imperative and the indicative in Scripture. This distinction is found in the text itself, not in the human heart.
Should there be any doubt about the intention of the Heidelberg Catechism, please read the following words from one of the authors as he introduces his commentary on the Catechism:
The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures. The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator and the free remission of sins, through faith.27
Zacharias Ursinus then went on to show in what ways the law and gospel are different and in what ways they are similar. The key thing to realize is that he insists on this distinction, not merely as a redemptive-historical category or as a distinction within man, but as something that emerges from “the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.”
The intent of the Catechism is also evident from another figure who had a role in its writing: Caspar Olevianus. He wrote in a similar vein when he answered a question with regard to the difference between the law and the gospel:
The law is a doctrine that God has implanted in human nature and repeated and renewed in his commandments. In it he holds before us, as if in a manuscript, what it is we are and are not to do, namely, obey Him perfectly both outwardly and inwardly. He also promises eternal life on the condition that I keep the law perfectly my whole life long . . . The gospel or good news, however, is a doctrine of which even the wisest know nothing by nature but which is revealed from heaven. In it God does not demand but rather offers and gives us the righteousness that the law requires.28
Both Ursinus and Olevianus and the Catechism they produced hold forth a clear distinction between the law and the gospel when it comes to how salvation comes to us. The German Reformers recognized similarities. For instance, they acknowledged that both law and gospel are from God and both reveal the nature, will, and works of God. Yet they also insisted on a “very great difference” between them.29 Unless we regard our confessions as wax noses that we can turn any which way, the Heidelberg Catechism holds its confessors to the law/gospel distinction. An honest and responsible interpretation requires us to maintain this.30
The law/gospel distinction also functions in the Canons of Dort. In chapter 3/4, article 5 speaks about the inadequacy of the law. Article 6, however, speaks about the need for the gospel. There is a clear distinction, and this is naturally related to the law/gospel distinction as it functioned within post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy.31 The law reveals the greatness of sin and more and more convicts man of his guilt. Says article 5, “Man cannot, therefore, through the law obtain saving grace.”32
That is the issue here with this distinction: how can sinners obtain saving grace? How can we be saved from his wrath? Article 6 insists that it is only through the gospel:
What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God performs by the power of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation, which is the gospel of the Messiah, by which it has pleased God to save men who believe, both under the old and under the new dispensation.
Notice how the Canons speak of the redemptive-historical categories of the old and new dispensation while at the same time acknowledging a law/gospel distinction with respect to how salvation is effected. Again, only a wax-nose approach would be able to evade the plain meaning of this confession.
The law/gospel distinction may also be discerned in the Belgic Confession. Article 7 says, “We believe that this Holy Scripture fully contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein.” Here too we find both the imperative (“the will of God”) and the indicative (“all that man must believe in order to be saved”). Later, in article 22, the Confession quotes Romans 3:28, insisting that we are saved “by faith apart from works of law.” The law/gospel distinction is functioning in the background here.
Canadian Reformed pastor Eric Kampen rightly exposed the hypocrisy of the Joint Federal Vision Statement with respect to theological language and formulations.33 The same Statement affirms that “all who subscribe to creeds and confessions should do so with a clear conscience and honest interpretation, in accordance with the plain meaning of words and the original intent of the authors, as best can be determined.”34 The Three Forms of Unity and their authors maintain the law/gospel distinction, not just as redemptive-historical periods, not as something resting within the human heart, but as a distinction functioning within the economy of salvation. Advocates of the FV who reject this reveal again their hypocrisy, this time with regard to the Reformed confessions. A rejection of the law/gospel distinction as it pertains to justification and the foundations of our salvation is out of step with the confessions of the Canadian Reformed Churches.
19. Richard Aasman, “Theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism,” in Clarion 43.5–7 (March 11, March 25, April 8, 1994). See also Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, eds. William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1990).
20. Richard J. Mouw, “Klaas Schilder as Public Theologian,” in Calvin Theological Journal 38.2 (November 2003), 281–298.
21. Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 296.
22. The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, 297.
23. The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, 296.
24. Quoted in The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, 51.
25. Rich Lusk, “Why the Law/Gospel Paradigm is Flawed.” Accessed at http://www.hornes.org/theologia/rich-lusk/why-the-law-gospel-paradigm-is-flawed
26. J. Van Bruggen, Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism, 27.
27. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G.W. Williard (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, reprint of 1852 edition), 2.
28. Caspar Olevianus, A Firm Foundation: An Aid to Interpreting the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. and ed. Lyle Bierma (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 9–10.
29. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 104.
30. Of course, it has to be recognized that we are speaking here of the first use of the law, the law as an instrument to convict sinners and drive them to Christ. Later in the Catechism (Lord’s Days 34–44), we find the third use, the law as the guide for Christian thankfulness.
31. For representative examples see Johannes Wollebius, Compendium christianae theologiae (London: Henry Woodfall, 1760), 1.15, 63–65; Johannes Maccovius, Scholastic Discourse (Apeldoorn: Instituut voor Reformatieonderzoek, 2009), chapter III, 97–99.
32. The law can only be said to be gracious insofar as it is God’s instrument to drive a sinner to Christ.
33. Eric Kampen, “Federal Vision,” in Clarion 57.1 (January 24, 2008).
34. “A Joint Federal Vision Profession,” 3.