This time, the cryptic formula in the title means: “Not all Biblical Principle-ists are Theonomists.”
First, let’s define terms.
Nowadays the word “theonomist” usually refers to someone who teaches that the laws of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, ought to be used directly as the primary basis and source for modern political, social, and economic policies and legislation. If you’d like to read more about this, check here and here.
We said that the term “theonomist” usually refers to using the Old Testament prescriptions for modern legislation. But recently the term is coming to be applied to anyone who appeals to Scripture in evaluating public policies and laws. For example, someone who objects to legalizing euthanasia by appealing to, among other things, the Christian Scriptures is allegedly a “theonomist.” Appealing to the Bible’s teaching about marriage between a man and a woman as one of several arguments against legalizing the marrying of homosexuals is considered illegitimate because such an appeal is supposedly “theonomist.”
It is helpful, however, to distinguish between theonomy described in the first sense, and what can be termed “biblical principle-ism.” This latter phrase describes the following three-step process:
- Identify within Bible passages that contain moral instruction the principle(s) being applied.
- Identify features of contemporary life where the specific moral principle may be relevant.
- Formulate a contemporary application of the biblical principle.
Here is an example. In Leviticus 19.35-37, we read:
You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the LORD.
Step 1: One of several biblical principles taught here is the requirement of absolute honesty in all commercial transactions. In ancient societies, primitive measures and scales were used in trading transactions, and were easily put in the service of deceit and trickery. Behind this principle is another: Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19.18).
Step 2: Here is merely one area of relevance: monetary policy. Today, in most Western countries, weights and measures are regulated by the state. Included among these weights and measures is the printing and circulation of money. Debasing currency by state-regulated policies and practices is a form of deceit and theft.
Step 3: It would be helpful and appropriate to warn people, on the basis of Leviticus 19.35-36, about the evil results of covetousness, of unnecessary indebtedness, and of a credit-based economy. This warning should expose the modern consequences of inflation as a form of state-sponsored larceny through practices that permit the manipulation of monetary value.
This is a brief example. Much, much more could and should be said regarding our modern context for applying the biblical principle of honesty, in this case, honest money. Proper contextualizing of the biblical principle requires a thorough analysis of the Bible’s teaching about indebtedness, both personal and public, as one prominent reason underlying monetary deceit. We also need a clear economic theory that properly arranges variables and values involved in economic transactions. Although the Bible does not in the first place supply us with a theory of economics, the Bible does provide necessary building materials for constructing a valid, that is, true-to-creational-reality, theory of economic activity.
One of the highest enjoyments for Christians studying the Old Testament is discovering the gospel of Jesus Christ in passages like Leviticus 19.35-37. Sadly it happens too often that our quest for moral guidance from passages like this blinds us to the gospel of Jesus Christ being taught and illustrated here. Israel’s laws were laced with appeals to her LORD’s identity and activity: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Because of who God is and because of what he had done, Israel was to live in Canaan, among the world, as free . . . chaste . . . honest . . . respectful . . . stewardly people. Redemption accomplished receives incarnation as redemption applied!
Sometimes people fear that Christians who use, among other arguments, the Bible’s principles for matters in the public square will separate the “law” from its “gospel” context. After all, just look at how much of Leviticus 19.35-37 appeals to God’s special relationship to his people Israel as the basis for their honesty in commercial transactions.
This is a very legitimate concern. So in our next installment in this thread, we need to consider this question: If the principle being applied in the public square can be learned, illustrated, and argued without reference to the Bible, shouldn’t Christians avoid appealing to the Bible at that point?