Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision

Federal Vision is the natural progression of the principles of theonomy.

Those who opposed theonomy in 1976 were right, so why have they now embraced those who teach the Federal Vision? As I have written before, my opposition to the Federal Vision is because of my love of the gospel. It does not matter how loudly someone says that all they are trying to do is move the PCA towards a more robust view of the sacraments. I know better and you should also. What they are doing is trying to move the PCA away from evangelicalism and towards legalism. 


Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision[1]

In 1975-76, a new theological movement called “theonomy” burst onto the scene of the Reformed world through the teaching of a first-year professor, Dr. Greg Bahnsen, at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi. Bahnsen’s first year as an instructor at RTS paralleled my senior year at that institution. One of the classes he taught was on “theonomy” and we read proof sheets of his forthcoming book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics[2], for our discussions and instruction. No class during my three years at RTS ever evoked such a wide-range of reactions as did that class. All of the other professors at RTS took issue with Bahnsen’s basic thesis and prepared a paper in opposition to it. The Board of Trustees quickly became concerned with Bahnsen’s teaching, with the result that his tenure at RTS was very brief. Like many students at that time, I was initially attracted to theonomy before rejecting it.

Theonomy soon aroused concern throughout the Presbyterian Church in America. There were articles written against by Dr. G. Aiken Taylor, editor of The Presbyterian Journal. Ministers in various presbyteries were examined concerning their views on theonomy. The Board of Trustees of RTS had several meetings with Bahnsen over the next couple of years before severing his employment. Books were written against theonomy, particularly, Theonomy: A Reformed Critique by William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey. Yet, here is what most people fail to realize. Federal Vision is the natural progression of the principles of theonomy. That is why many the first-generation federal visionists are theonomists. The Federal Vision is simply the principles of theonomy applied to the doctrine of the covenant.

The Two Strands of Theonomy

There are two intertwined strands to theonomy. One strand is civil and involves the reconstruction of society according to the civil or judicial laws of the Old Testament. This strand is known as Christian Reconstructionism. When most people think of theonomy, they imagine this strand as representative of the whole. But there is another strand to theonomy which emphasizes the application of the law to the covenant community. This strand is not as prominent as the civil aspect of theonomy, but it is definitely outlined in Bahnsen’s book. The difference between these two strands is the difference between society and the church. The goal is the same in both; only the starting point is different. As Clark writes:

Theonomy and the Federal Vision are not identical but they are twins. The FV wants to regenerate the culture through sacerdotalism, e.g., through baptismal union with Christ whereby all baptized persons are, ex opere operato (Rich Lusk, a proponent of the FV, has spoken this way—on this see Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry), and temporarily, historically, conditionally united to Christ. Both visions are aimed at the restoration of Christendom. One is primarily ecclesiastical and the other primarily civil. These common attitudes, interests, and approaches, however, help explain why so many theonomists have been attracted to the FV and vice versa.[3]

Many people who become theonomists are first attracted to the goal of the reconstruction of society according to the laws of the Bible. In a fallen world, that illusory hope can be very enticing, even intoxicating, which explains why even some non-Reformed ministers have adopted theonomy. A number of them adopt theonomy as an addendum to an otherwise evangelical, gospel centered theology. It is my conviction from personal conversations with him that even Bahnsen viewed theonomy that way.

Bahnsen’s Agreement with Evangelical Theology

The following quotes from his book show the basic evangelical bent of Bahnsen’s theology:

(1) Bahnsen taught that our redemption is in Christ, in His atonement, which must be applied to us by the work of the Spirit in order to save us:

Theonomy is not a scheme for personal self-justification. God’s grace, expressed in the accomplished and applied redemption of Jesus Christ, alone can save us.[4]

(2) He distinguished the law from the redemptive grace of God in the gospel:

Using the law as a means of salvation is highhanded flattery and disdain for God’s grace.[5]

(3) Unlike most Federal Vision proponents and the followers of the New Perspectives on Paul, as taught by N. T. Wright, Bahnsen viewed the Judaizers in the Scripture as trusting in a works-based scheme of salvation:

Paul also opposed Judaistic legalism; many of the disparaging comments he makes about law-keeping are directed against the Judaizers who abused God’s law by making it a way of justification.[6]

(4) He affirms the second and third uses of the law, that is, that it reveals the sinful condition of mankind and is a rule for the obedience of Christians:

The law does not save a man, but it does show him why he needs to be saved and how he is to walk after he is saved.[7]

(5) He would have repudiated the final justification theories of the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul because he believed that keeping the law can never be a condition for justification:

Christ’s perfect obedience to the law of God secures our release from the necessity of personally keeping the law as a condition of justification.[8]

(6) Bahnsen taught that the law was a pattern for sanctification, but not justification. Yet, law was more comprehensive than the moral law in his view:

Scripture uniformly views the law as a standard of righteousness after which we should pattern our sanctification and Christian life, but justification is never by our obedience to the law.[9]

(7) Most Federal Vision proponents deny that the active obedience of Christ is imputed to believers. They generally restrict imputation to the passive obedience of the sufferings of Christ in His atonement. Bahnsen taught that both the active and passive righteousness of Christ are imputed to believers for their salvation:

The extent of Christ’s righteous obedience is seen in the fact that He both actively obeyed the prescriptive as well as passively obeying the penal requirements of the law, the former in order to qualify as a substitute, the latter in order to atone for sin. Having obeyed the law in its moral requirements in order that His perfect righteousness might be imputed to us, He came under the law’s curse and condemnation so that our transgressions could be forgiven.[10]

(8) And again, he says:

Therefore, although our own obedience to the law cannot be used as a way of justification, we are saved by the imputed obedience of the messiah (1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9), an obedience to both the prescriptive and penal requirements of God’s law.[11]

(9) Bahnsen also was careful to distinguish between justification and sanctification contrary to many in the Federal Vision who conflate these two distinct graces:

It is the perfect obedience of God’s Son that is imputed to the Christian in justification, and sanctification can be understood as a progressive growth toward the personal realization of that level of righteousness which has been imputed to the believer.[12]

(10) The Joint Federal Vision Profession gives a very confused and confusing statement about regeneration. Yet, Bahnsen asserted very clearly that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit:

Scripture says that the Holy Spirit regenerates us in order that we who were once disobedient and spiritually dead might live in accord with God’s law.[13]

(11) And finally, Bahnsen clearly taught justification by faith alone and his assessment of the book of Galatians is contrary to the views of the Federal Vision and N. T. Wright’s New Perspectives on Paul:

The fundamental concern of the book of Galatians is the gospel of justification by faith alone.[14]

In the above quotes, Bahnsen made several statements that are contradictory of the views of the Federal Vision and he denied that our works contribute to our justification, while never agreeing with the doctrine of a final justification.[15]

The Non-Evangelical Theology of the Federal Vision

On every single point listed above, the proponents of the Federal Vision take the opposite position. They, like the New Perspectives on Paul taught by N. T. Wright, deny that Galatians is an epistle written against a works based scheme of salvation. They define justification as not being final until the end of life when God will judge us on the basis of the totality of our lives. They conflate justification and sanctification into the same thing. They deny that justification is by faith alone, once for all, at the moment a sinner believes. They deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, His personal righteousness according to His fulfillment of the law’s demands. They teach covenant nomism which is just another form of neonomianism, that is that God has made a new and easier law that make it easier for us to obey.

It is interesting and even intriguing that people who opposed theonomy when it first appeared have sought to rescue those who teach the Federal Vision. They opposed theonomy at that time because they feared that it would lead to legalism and non-evangelical doctrines. William S. Barker, who co-authored a book referenced at the beginning of this article, was a defense witness in support of the teaching of the Peter Leithart at his trial by Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the PCA. Barker, whose orthodoxy is unquestioned, opposed theonomy, but defended the Federal Vision theology of Leithart. How is that possible? The Federal Vision openly teaches non-evangelical doctrines on point after point concerning salvation. Perhaps, those who first opposed theonomy expected them to someday openly espouse salvation by moral works of righteousness, instead of disguising their views by sleight of hand. Perhaps those who first opposed theonomy have failed to realize that salvation by ceremonial works of righteousness (circumcision, the Passover, baptism, the Lord’s supper, etc.) is also a works salvation scheme. Either way, what they feared has come to pass, so why are they not opposed to the Federal Vision?

When I ponder that question, I am reminded of a joke that made the circles in the early years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency. It went like this. Clinton made a trip to Moscow and Boris Yeltsin said to him, “Mr. President, all of Russia is thankful to the United States for our free market economy and the hope of a better tomorrow. How shall we ever thank you?” Clinton responded, “Well, we will take your managed economy, your national healthcare system, and your social planning.” No one laughs at that joke anymore and if you love the gospel you shouldn’t be laughing at the Federal Vision either. Those who opposed theonomy in 1976 were right, so why have they now embraced those who teach the Federal Vision? As I have written before, my opposition to the Federal Vision is because of my love of the gospel. It does not matter how loudly someone says that all they are trying to do is move the PCA towards a more robust view of the sacraments. I know better and you should also. What they are doing is trying to move the PCA away from evangelicalism and towards legalism.

Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla. He is the author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision.      

[1] Most of this article is excerpted from my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision.

[2] This book was not published until 1977.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bahnsen, Theonomy, 35.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 121.

[7] Ibid., 127.

[8] Ibid., 128.

[9] Ibid., 135.

[10] Ibid., 152.

[11] Ibid., 153.

[12] Ibid., 161.

[13] Ibid., 175.

[14] Ibid., 499.

[15] In 1977, I specifically asked Bahnsen about the passages of Scripture which teach that there will be a judgment according to works and his answer was in line with classical Reformed theology as represented by Cornelis Venema and others. His position at that time was contrary to the interpretation given to those passages, such as Romans 2, by the proponents of the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul.