Book Review: Covenantal Theonomy by Kenneth Gentry

As an advocate of the theonomic (theocratic) thesis for almost ten years, I am continually perplexed at the attempts of Kline’s disciples to override the theonomic agenda. Like all other theologies, theonomy is not a monolitihic position. The Jordanians and Bahnsenians have gone their separate ways, though both affirming the necessity of God’s law for modern society (for some differences read James B. Jordan’s Through New Eyes).

In his Covenantal Theonomy, Kenneth Gentry responds to one of Meredith Kline’s most fervent disciples, T. David Gordon. Gentry’s response focuses on Gordon’s premise that the Bible is insufficient to address issues pertaining to the civil sphere. Gordon argues that theonomists have abused the law of God by perpetuating the Mosaic Law in the New Covenant. Gordon argues that the law had a distinct purpose and it was meant for a distinct people, the theocratic nation of Israel. However, following the Bahnsenian tradition, Gentry argues persuasively that the law is part of the immutable character of God. Since God does not change, his laws remain the same in every time and place, unless it is rescinded by a New Covenant imperative (the sacrificial laws, as a clear example). Further, Gentry argues that the Scriptures provide a clear case for the accountability of non-theocratic nations to the law of God. Even nations who did not have the disctinct Mosaic laws as their own were judged for violating them.

Unique to this discussion is the exegesis of Matthew 5:17. Gentry spends a considerable time defending the theonomic understanding of this text. This passage is crucial to the theonomic position, though theonomy, as Gentry reminds, is not dependent exclusively on it. The theonomic thesis is “rooted in the presupposition that Scripture is the self-attesting word of God, which is not to be dismissed by man (170).” Thus, Paul and the other New Testament writers assume a theonomic thesis.

The reader will see two clear assumptions as they compare Gentry and Gordon. Gentry is firmly grounded in the Westminsterian tradition. That is, the main confession of the Reformed Presbyterian faith is on the side of theonomy on this issue, as Gentry ably expounds. Gordon, on the other hand, holds no such commitment. He affirms–as his mentor Kline– many times that the “assembly” and “divines” were wrong to assume such continuity between covenants. Thus, confessionally, Gentry and the theonomic tradition are in good standing.

Gordon, though in error in most of his assumptions, brings a freshness to the debate. He raises several crucial questions. Is it legitimate (as I have argued elsewhere) to take exceptions to your tradition’s central confession? Have theonomists been too literalistic in their understanding of civil laws without considering the trajectory and redemptive outworkings of biblical history? Has theonomy minimized the biblical idea of “wisdom” and “maturity” in speaking to areas of the civil sphere? My own perception is that the modern day theonomists (or “theocrats” as Jordan prefers) have matured in their view of biblical ethics. They have filled in the gaps which our early forefathers were not able to do.

Further thoughts:

a) For a more recent expression of the theonomic movement, see James B. Jordan and Peter Leithart’s lectures at the Biblical Horizon’s Conference in 1991.

b) As you read through Gentry’s response, note the level of research in the footnotes. Theonomists have in the words of Gary North “foonoted opponents  to death.”

c) If you do not already have Greg Bahnsen’s masterpiece Theonomy in Christian Ethics, you can purchase it from Covenant Media.

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Covenantal Theonomy by Kenneth Gentry

  1. Craig Hurst says:

    I was just introduced to Theonomy last nigh as I was reading Frame’s book “The Christian Life”. As you know he does not hold that position. After reading this review it seems Frame minimizes the theonomists distinctions. Would you agree? I think I need to add Gentry’s book to my future reading list.

  2. Uri Brito says:

    Yes, Frame has always been favorable towards theonomy, but he doesn’t think the differences are that great. Frame was the first one to make R.J. Rushdoony’s work (the father of Reconstructionism) made known to the Reformed World when he published a review of Rushdoony’s massive work: The Institutes of Biblical Law. A good response to theonomy, while making many favorable comments is Vern Poythress’ The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses.

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