Theonomy is a term for the belief that the moral law of God is to be applied as a standard of righteousness for governing individuals and society. The term comes from the Greek for “God’s law” and is the concept that all of the moral laws (those excluding the non-ceremonial and dietary laws) given to Moses and recorded in the Pentateuch are binding on people of all nations forever. Theonomy posits God’s law as the only just standard for regulations in every human institution: family, church, and state.
Theocracy is the term for a nation ruled by God and God’s law. Theocracy does not imply rule of the state by the church. The proper term here would be an ecclesiocracy. Although the church and the state are separate spheres of government, both are to be ruled by God’s law.
Detractors of theonomy and theocracy like to argue that the civil law and its sanctions were limited to Old Covenant Israel because there was no separation of church and state in Israel’s theocracy. Even a casual survey of the law of Moses disproves this conjecture. The Old Covenant commands that “alien and sojourners” in Israel, even those who were uncircumcised heathen, were bound to the civil law (Lev. 24:22).
Yet these foreigners were not required to keep most of the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law (Ex. 12:43,44,48; 9:33; Deut. 14:21). Only the circumcised were allowed to participate in the Passover, the old covenant communion meal. The two “marks of the covenant” separated members of the “church” from members of the “state.” There was also a separation between the priests of the ceremonial law, the Levites, and the magistrates of the civil law, the elders and judges (Lev. 14:35; 27:11; Deut. 1:16; 16:18; 19:12; 21:2; 25:1).
In the New Covenant, the primary purpose of the church is to minister God’s grace in the world. Christ’s commission to the church was to preach salvation to the nations (Matt. 28:18-20). The Apostles were given the keys of the kingdom and the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, in order to carry out the Great Commission. The state is to be a minister of justice (Rom. 13:1-7). It alone is given the sword of power to execute vengeance on those who would violate the law of God as expressed in the laws of the civil sphere. The church is never to control civil government, but may instruct state proceedings with biblical counsel (Deut. 17:8-13). The church is also expected to train godly men for civil leadership.
The problem, of course, with the colonial Massachusetts “theocracy” was that it was not a true theocracy with separation of powers, but an ecclesiocracy. Cotton Mather wrote: “Yet, after all…in this world a Church-State was impossible, whereinto there enters nothing which defiles.”
On the other hand, it was this experiment with self-government which finally led to the emancipation of the colonies from the tyranny of the British crown in later years. In all fairness to the Massachusetts Puritans, we must realize that they came to the New World at a time when the Protestant Reformation was still very much in progress in England. A unifying and comprehensive church confession describing the relationship between church and state had not been adopted. Connecticut, Plymouth, and Rhode Island experimented with alternate forms of theocracy.
According to 19th century Harvard historian John Fiske: “The spirit in which the Hebrew prophet rebuked and humbled an idolatrous king was a spirit they could comprehend. Such a spirit was sure to manifest itself in cramping measures and in ugly acts of persecution; but it is none the less the fortunate alliance of that fervid religious enthusiasm with the Englishman’s love of self government that our modern freedom owes its existence.”
Modern theonomists can neither completely defend the rigidity of the Massachusetts Bay Colony nor completely disparage the attempts towards a godly separation of powers by Roger Williams and the Rhode Island colony. A more honest approach would be to settle on the example of civil liberty found in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut.
The United States Constitution owes allegiance to Thomas Hooker, more than any other man, for providing a working model of decentralized government, one which had not appeared on the face of the earth since the time of the ancient Hebrews.
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was the first biblical covenant in modern times which founded a federal government. The Mayflower Compact was not a constitution, in that it did not define and limit the functions of government. The Magna Charta had the nature of a written constitution because it described the rights of the people, but it did not create a civil government.
This constitution states that Connecticut is submitted to the “Savior and Lord.” There are none of the patronizing references to a “dread sovereign” or a “gracious king” nor the slightest allusion to the authority of British government or any other government over the colony. It presumes Connecticut to be self-governing. It does not describe church membership as a condition for suffrage. In this federation, all powers not granted to the General Court remained in the towns. Each township had equal representation in the General Court. The governor and the council were chosen by a majority vote of the people with almost universal suffrage.
In his sermon to the General Court, May 31, 1638, Hooker said, “The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people…the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance…they who have power to appoint officers and magistrates have the right also to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place unto which they call them.”
John Fiske writes: “It was the first written constitution known to history, that created a government, and it marked the beginnings of the American republic, of which Thomas Hooker deserves more than any other man to be called the father. The government of the United States today is in lineal descent more nearly related to that of Connecticut than to that of any of the other thirteen colonies.”
Source: John Fiske, The Beginnings of New England or The Puritan Theocracy in its Relations to Civil Law and Religious Liberty, illustrated edition (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1889), pp. 274, 137, 140.