In Hart and Muether's history of American Presbyterianism, Seeking a Better Country, they describe a doctrine of the "spirituality of the church," which emphasizes the spiritual, not social, task of the church:

The church was not commissioned to make the world a better place in which to live. It had no business telling the government how to rule the body politic. It was not to feed the hungry, or provide houses for the homeless, or protest social injustice. These political and social temptations only distracted the church from its spiritual calling. (223)

This view was "championed by James H. Thornwell," one of the most prominent 19th-century Southern Presbyterians. But in what seems to me a contradiction, Thornwell is cited by others as an advocate of theonomy, which Wikipedia defines:

the idea that God's Law-Word, including the judicial laws of the Old Testament, should be observed by modern societies.

For example, theonomist Greg Bahnsen writes:

Even into the late nineteenth century respected Reformed theologians were contending that the state should conform its laws to those found in the law of God. The southern presbyterian, James H. Thornwell, stated in 1861: "We long to see, what the world has never yet beheld, a truly Christian Republic." (source)

Put simply, my question is: how are these two views are reconciled in the thought of Thornwell and other theologians who hold these two views? How did he/they see the spirituality of the church and theonomy as non-contradictory?

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    I think the answer may be two kingdom theology. It argues Christians coexist in two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world and therefore have two distinct responsibilities. One is to the church which operates in the kingdom of God and therefore has no place being involved in politics or social activism. But Christians also have a responsibility in the kingdom of the world to advocate for the best form of government. With this rational you could advocate for a theonomic state and a spiritual church.
    – P. TJ
    Mar 20, 2017 at 14:43
  • @P.TJ I hadn't considered that possibility, but I can see how that would make sense. Hopefully Thornwell or others have written clearly on this. Mar 20, 2017 at 15:45
  • Theonomy is directly in conflict with Two Kingdom theology. They are considered opposites for the most part Mar 21, 2017 at 15:56
  • It's certainly true that theonomists are typically coming from the "neo-kyperian" or tranformationalist perspective. But the question was, essentially, how someone could hold both to the spirituality of the church and theonomy. Though I'm no expert on Thornwell or how he arrived at these two views, I can see how 2K theology could allow for such a seeming contradiction. But this is my best guess, so I could be completely wrong.
    – P. TJ
    Mar 21, 2017 at 16:41
  • I don't get the literal sense of your question. What is "reconciled in the thought of Thornwell"? Doesn't he hold one of the two opposing viewpoints?
    – guest37
    Mar 25, 2017 at 0:29

1 Answer 1


Theonomy recognizes that the revealed word of God is the rule in every area of life, not merely the spiritual matters. Theonomists interpret the Bible to prescribe civil laws, especially from the Israelite theocracy that are supposed to govern all civil governments that are in line with God's will. They recognize both the civil magistrate and the Church as legitimate institutions who owe their allegiance to the word of God but they are not the same institution. In their view, it would be inappropriate for either institution to interfere with the matters that concern the other. Church courts are never to exercise civil penalties over their judgments nor are civil courts to usurp the ministry of the keys or the sacraments from the Church.

This view is not unique to James Thornwell, but it is clearly evident in his thinking.

[T]he separation of Church and State is a very different thing from the separation of religion and the State. Here is where our fathers erred. In their anxiety to guard against the evils of a religious establishment, and to preserve the provinces of Church and State separate and distinct, they virtually expelled Jehovah from the government of the country, and left the State an irresponsible corporation, or responsible only to the immediate corporators. They made it a moral person, and yet not accountable to the Source of all law. It is this anomaly which we desire to see removed; and the removal of it by no means implies a single element of what is involved in a national Church.

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    I think this is on the right track, but I'd like to understand more clearly that Thornwell and those who think like him would explain it this way, and why that's not contradictory. Mar 21, 2017 at 22:58

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