Paul Tillich famously wrote about ethics in the heteronomous, autonomous, and theonomous modes. To summarize all too briefly, heteronomous ethics is authoritarian, requiring submission to alien rules. Autonomous ethics is the conceit of modern liberalism that the individual is a law unto himself. Theonomous ethics, living in God and to God, is the mode appropriate to the new life indicated in Tillich’s favored passage from St. Paul, “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5). What Paul Tillich meant by theonomous ethics should in no way be confused with the movement that today goes by the name of theonomy.
The theonomic movement is in some ways small, with perhaps no more than a dozen prominent representatives. Its influence, however, is disproportionate to its size, and familiarity with its personalities, positions, and purposes is important to understanding the ways in which some Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are making the connections between religion and public life. We will also explore, sympathetically I hope, why theonomy so appeals to many religious conservatives who have in the last decade discovered the responsibilities and excitements of political engagement. Such an exploration leads to the question of whether the movement is a temporary aberration, an abiding temptation, or, as it claims, an historic breakthrough in our understanding of Christian responsibility for the world.
Gary North says that theonomy “did not exist twenty years ago.” North, Greg Bahnsen, and Rousas J. Rushdoony are the chief architects of the movement, and the greatest of these is Rushdoony. Some date theonomy as a movement from the publication of Rushdoony’s Thy Kingdom Come in 1970. The first volume of his Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973 marked the emergence of the systematic argument for theonomy under the banner of Christian Reconstructionism. Born in New York in 1916, R. J. Rushdoony believes he can trace his Armenian ancestry through an unbroken line of pastors to the fourth century. Educated in California, with a Ph.D. from Valley Christian University, Rushdoony has published twenty-nine books since 1959 and is still counting. He works out of Vallecito, California, where in 1965 he established the Chalcedon Foundation. The foundation publishes the Chalcedon Report, a monthly, and the more scholarly Journal of Christian Reconstruction, while issuing books under the imprint of Ross House Books. Closely connected to the foundation are figures such as John Lofton and Otto Scott. The notoriously combative Lofton is a television commentator and formerly a columnist with the Washington Times. With Rushdoony, he serves as contributing editor of Conservative Digest, of which Otto Scott is senior editor.
Gary North is said to be the most controversial of the major theonomists, combining Lofton’s combativeness with an overlay of scholarship. He is trained as an economist and is devoted to the gold standard as a component in restoring an economy and society along the lines of medieval feudalism. Although North is Rushdoony’s son-in-law, they have had sharp disagreements over the application of “Bible law,” and North has set up shop in Tyler, Texas, where he runs the Institute for Christian Economics and is influential in Geneva Ministries, an enterprise that may now be moribund. He has shown considerable interest in “survivalist” arguments urging Christians to prepare for the coming crash of Western civilization by adopting as their model Noah and his readiness for the flood.
Greg Bahnsen is pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian church in California. Raised on Rushdoony’s writings, he made his mark in 1977 with Theonomy in Christian Ethics. There he systematically developed the contention that all of God’s law found in the Bible—even, as he says, the last “jot and tittle”—should be applied directly to society today. As with other theonomists, the “all” is qualified only by those laws that are explicitly abrogated in the New Testament. According to some observers, Bahnsen is more self-critical than his Reconstructionist colleagues and may be moving toward a “mediating” position closer to theological traditions of somewhat more venerable provenance. But to date the leadership of the theonomist movement is the trinity of Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen. Other prolific writers in the movement are David Chilton, Gary DeMar, George Grant (not the distinguished Canadian philosopher), and, at least until recently, James Jordan. In truth, “prolific” is hardly adequate to suggest the veritable flood of publications from these writers. It seems unlikely that anyone, and certainly not this writer, could honestly claim that he keeps up with every article, monograph, and tome laying out the latest advances and revisions of theonomist teaching.*
The question can fairly be raised whether there is anything coherent enough to be described as a theonomic movement. James Jordan, for instance, writes that there is a “total breach” between Vallecito and Tyler.** The theonomic phenomenon is indeed marked by an astonishing fractiousness. Critics have pointed out that people so obviously at one another’s throats seem unlikely candidates to lead us toward a new world order based on Bible law. Jordan and others suggest that Rushdoony’s version of Christian Reconstructionism, with its emphasis upon Old Testament law, including ceremonial law, is really Hebrew Reconstructionism. The breach between Vallecito and Tyler has to do with, among other things, the primacy that Rushdoony accords the family and the individual in the Mosaic covenant. Jordan and others are more emphatic about the newness of the New Testament, stressing the Church as the “New Israel” and the ecclesial nature of Reconstructionism’s mandate for social transformation. “The strict theonomists,” Jordan writes, “say that [we] must implement the Mosaic law as it stands. The more moderate Christian Reconstructionists have said that the Bible as a whole, including the Mosaic law wisely applied in line with New Covenant principles, should be the guide.” Jordan is sensitive to the charge of sectarianism and clearly wishes to identify as a catholic Christian in the Reformed tradition. In this very moderate self-presentation, Reconstructionism is simply “political philosophy from a Biblical standpoint.” In fact, given current confusions over the meaning of the term, Jordan is not at all sure that he wants any more to be identified as a Reconstructionist.
For all the infighting and usually breathless announcements of new insights into “Bible law,” however, the basic proposals of Reconstructionism are clear enough. If it sometimes seems more a mood than a movement, the ideas that attend the mood are endlessly explicated. Jordan’s cautions are well taken; none of the major individuals involved is comfortable with all that is said in the name of theonomic teaching or Reconstructionism. But the individuals do participate in what might be described as a shared presuppositional circle. Most other Christians, for instance, are conventionally given to saying that the Bible contains “no blueprint for the right ordering of society.” That is precisely what the theonomists deny. In fact, one set of books is called “The Biblical Blueprint Series,” and it is nothing if not specific. The determining proposition is that the Mosaic law given at Sinai was not just for Israel but is God’s design for all nations of all times. In fact, Israel has been definitively “excommunicated” from the universal covenant. (Not incidentally, the usually strong Evangelical support for the State of Israel is very much called into question among those who have come under the influence of Reconstructionism.) As most of the proponents of this viewpoint do not hesitate to say, a theonomic social order is a theocratic social order, and a theocratic social order is a Christian social order. (Some theonomists prefer “Christocracy” to theocracy.)
Bible law requires a radical decentralization of government under the rule of the righteous. Private property rights, especially for the sake of the family, must be rigorously protected, with very limited interference by the state and the institutional church. Restitution, including voluntary slavery, should be an important element of the criminal justice system. A strong national defense should be maintained until the whole world is “reconstructed” (which may be a very long time). Capital punishment will be employed for almost all the capital crimes listed in the Old Testament, including adultery, homosexual acts, apostasy, incorrigibility of children (meaning late teenagers), and blasphemy, along with murder and kidnapping. There will be a cash, gold-based economy with limited or no debt. These are among the specifics broadly shared by people who associate themselves with the theonomic viewpoint.
The structure of theonomic thought has everything to do with eschatology, Christian teaching about “the last things” (ta eschata in Greek). Jaroslav Pelikan has written that, for secularized moderns, “any public reference to ‘the last things’ almost inevitably evokes a giggle. Modern Christians are no less embarrassed to be caught dealing seriously with eschatological questions” (The Melody of Theology, Harvard University Press, 1988). That is and is not true. In the last twenty years, theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg have rescued eschatology from the last pages of the dogmatic texts. Pannenberg in particular has, with impressive systematic rigor, made the argument that in the last things we discover the first things. Certainly for Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians eschatology does not evoke giggles. In the period following the American Civil War, conservative Protestants turned with fervent interest to questions about the “millennium” and “Bible prophecy,” focusing attention on the apocalyptic books of the Bible such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation. This entailed a determined rejection of the previously dominant “postmillennialism” in which it was believed that Christ’s kingdom would somehow grow out of the spiritual and moral progress of humanity. By the first part of this century, Fundamentalists (and those Fundamentalists who would later call themselves Evangelicals) were almost uniformly “premillennial.” That is, they believed the kingdom would be established only after the return of Christ in glory. Church and culture, it was taught, are in for a hard time before the final deliverance. To put it plainly, things would get worse before they get better. Many premillennialists were also “dispensationalists,” which means they interpreted historical developments through the lens of biblical prophecies that allegedly revealed the different ages or dispensations of God’s working to prepare the world for the End Time.
A critically important feature of theonomy is that it represents a return to postmillennialism after almost a century of its near-total eclipse. Although their analysis of the shape of the world is typically bleak, the theonomists insist that the kingdom is now, if only the true believers have the boldness to take dominion (hence “dominion theology”). In urging the reconstruction of the righteous commonwealth, theonomists frequently proclaim their teaching as something breathtakingly new. Much of their literature is marked by a sense of novelty, as though they are addressing great questions for the first time, as though such issues bad been inexplicably neglected in two thousand years of Christian history. At the same time, they resist the charge of novelty, adamantly asserting their status as orthodox Christians in the Great Tradition. The usual appeal is to the American Puritans, to John Calvin, and, frequently, to selected early fathers of the church. Abraham Kuyper (1837– 1920), the Dutch theologian and political leader who espoused an intriguing theory of “spheres of sovereignty,” is also a considerable influence. Jordan goes so far as to say that “Christian Reconstruction originally was just Kuyperianism with the Bible.”
Since their ambition is nothing less than putting together all the pieces for the right ordering of the world according to Bible law, theonomist writers necessarily must range widely. It is understandable that they tend to be autodidacts, employing chunks of knowledge, including historical data, in frequently eccentric fashion. Some Reconstructionists describe themselves as neo-Puritans, almost all display Calvinist or neo-Calvinist loyalties, and most evidence sympathy for other experiments in “governance by the saints” such as Oliver Cromwell’s reconstruction of Parliament. While it is generally recognized that these earlier experiments failed, the suggestion is that they were on the right track, and they might have succeeded if they had had the benefit of the theocratic insights being unfolded in these latter days. (The Reconstructionists, it should be noted, are quite right in protesting the secular caricatures of these earlier efforts that pass for history in our school texts.) While one can agree about the element of nobility in the grandly flawed experiments of Calvin in Geneva, Cromwell in England, and the Puritans in this country, the particular nature of their common failure needs careful attention. (The mixed success of Kuyperianism in the Netherlands, it might be noted, was due in large part to Kuyper’s respect for the place of “common grace” and reason in the ordering of society, precisely the element of Kuyper that strict theonomists repudiate.) The question is whether the flaw in these earlier experiments was in the intention or in the execution. Theonomists urge us to work harder and think more clearly so that we can do it right the next time. Other Christians insist it should not be done at all.
For people who are commonly given to condemning the appeal to the authority of tradition (“The Bible Alone” is the favored piece of tradition in this connection), Fundamentalist debates about eschatology are remarkably interested in precedent. Among historians today, it is more generally recognized that forms of chiliasm (chilioi—Greek for a thousand) or millennialism were commonplace in the early centuries of the church. Against gnostic “spiritualizers,” fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian protested attempts to allegorize away the promise of Christ’s rule in identifiable continuity with the experience of history. Contemporary Fundamentalists—a category that includes many, if not most, theonomists—try in vain to fit the categories of the current debate into patristic thought. It is not easy to line the fathers up on the side of the “premils” vs. the “postmils,” or “pretribs” vs. “midtribs” and “posttribs.” (The latter three have to do with the question of whether the believers will be “raptured” before the great tribulation begins on earth, half-way through it, or after it is over. These are debates of considerable interest to dispensationalists in the tradition of John Nelson Darby [1800–1882].)
Those who are not Fundamentalists may experience bemusement, and may be tempted to amusement, in the face of these frequently fevered disputes. Biblical proof passages and authoritative precedents are lobbed back and forth with bewildering abandon. Noncombatants observing these battles from afar might be inclined to think both the subject matter and the spectacle of its debate simply bizarre. Yet believing Christians of all persuasions and, for that matter, believing Jews are not so distant from these controversies as they might think. Eschatology matters, and eschatological ideas, too, have consequences. For example, in his recent The Reshaping of Catholicism, the distinguished Roman Catholic theologian Avery Dulles analyzes at length the claim that the Second Vatican Council subordinated the Church to the kingdom, viewing the former as instrumental to the establishment of the latter (Harper & Row, 1988). Dulles sharply challenges that interpretation of the Council’s teaching and thereby throws into question varieties of liberation theology that are in fact a “dominion theology” premised upon the prophetism of Marxist theory. Not for nothing has Reconstructionism been called the liberation theology of the right.
The final consummation of history in the return of Christ and the establishment of his rule in the right ordering of all things is an article of faith for all orthodox Christians. For most Christians now and in the past two millennia, millennialism itself has not been that important. That is, the biblical references to a future millennium were viewed as an ambiguous metaphor for the eternal rule of Christ. From time to time, however, and usually along the margins of orthodoxy, there were Christians determined to cut through the ambiguity and read “the signs of the times” (Matthew 16) with greater specificity. The Puritan tradition, including such worthies as Jonathan Edwards, arguably America’s greatest theologian, inclined toward a species of postmillennialism in which thoughtful people dared to believe that God was working out his purpose for the ages in the events to which they were party. The liberal Social Gospel movement that emerged in the latter part of the last century was emphatically postmillennial, and the afterglow of that movement is still discernible in sectors of oldline Protestantism. The kingdom is now, if we have the nerve for it, and when it is established Christ will be welcomed into his own. Nor should we forget that species of Evangelicalism found on the left of the political spectrum (e.g., the Sojourners group) that is also convinced that there is in fact a “biblical politics” that can and should be implemented now by radically committed Christians.
Of course contemporary theonomists, who wish to think of themselves as conservative, resist the comparison with the liberal Social Gospel and with left-wing Evangelicals, not to mention liberation theology. But the analogies are inescapable. The policy specifics may be dramatically different, but the theological rationale is strikingly similar. The different thing in theonomy is not its postmillennialism but its understanding of biblical law. Acts 15 describes the convening of what might be described as the first ecumenical council in order to answer the “Judaizers” among the early Christians who insisted that non-Jewish believers must be circumcised and instructed to keep the law of Moses, or else they would not be saved. That position was rejected by the apostles, who decided, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden that these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” The Judaizers of that time claimed that the gentiles, in order to be saved, must enter Judaism under Mosaic law; the theonomists of today claim that Mosaic law has departed Judaism in order to reconstruct, and thus save, the nations under the rule of “the saints.”
According to Rushdoony, the saints will never get serious about their task so long as they are in the premillennial mode, waiting for God to make the decisive move. Rushdoony notes that there are forty million Christians in the United States who profess to believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God. “If these people believe that the end is near, and the rapture at hand, their impact on the world is very different from that of forty million who believe that they shall conquer the world. In the one situation, people are preparing to leave the world, and to snatch other brands from the burning before they leave. In the other, they are preparing to conquer the world and assert the ‘Crown Rights of King Jesus.’” Gary North states it this way: “Jesus’ ministry restored the inheritance to His people. He announced a worldwide ministry of conquest, based on the preaching of the gospel of peace. Christians are required to pursue the same program of world dominion which God originally assigned to Adam and reassigned to Noah.” The war between good and evil climaxed in the cross and resurrection of Christ, and now the resurrection victory is to be progressively actualized in history by the saints who claim dominion in the name of the crown rights of Jesus.
The millennium is now, we are living not in the end times but in the middle times, and the calling of Christians is to rule as kings on earth. Theonomists typically say it may take hundreds or thousands of years for the rule of the righteous to be firmly established. It may not be entirely evident to the outsider why, in this view of things, Christians now or at that distant time should be praying for the return of Christ. The thing to do now is not to pray for his return but to get the world in order for it, and once the world is in order, his return may seem somewhat less necessary.
Again, most theonomists want to be orthodox Christians and therefore do not deny the doctrine of the second coming, but the urgency of the hope would seem to be drastically attenuated. Christians historically have known that they have here no abiding city, and therefore they yearn for the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, that is to come. But David Chilton says flatly, “The City of God is the Church, now and forever.” Historic Christianity speaks of the Church pointing to the kingdom, anticipating the kingdom, and, in a sacramental and spiritual manner, participating in the kingdom now. Some theologians, such as Avery Dulles, defend a tradition that is prepared to say that the eternal Church Triumphant, as distinct from the temporal Church Militant, is identical with the kingdom. The theonomist contention is that the Church Militant”the Church Very Militant”is the kingdom now. Theonomy is “realized eschatology” with a vengeance, in several meanings of the term. (Chilton’s exposition of the book of Revelation is titled The Days of Vengeance.)
Although apparently not associated with the theonomist movement, there is a group that propounds what is called the doctrine of the Manifest Sons of God, and critics House and Ice suggest that they catch the theonomist impulse very nicely. Their understanding of Romans 8 is that we are all destined to become sons of God in a manner distinctly different from what the Church has historically understood St. Paul to be saying. Earl Paulk, a spokesman for this view, explains: “Jesus Christ has now done all He can do, and He waits at the right hand of His Father, until you and I as sons of God, become manifest and make the world His footstool. He is waiting for us to say, ‘Jesus, we have made the kingdoms of this world the Kingdom of our God, and we are ruling and reigning in Your world. Even so, come Lord Jesus.’” One detects a suggestion that in some sense Jesus did not succeed in doing what he came to do. There is no doubt in theonomist teaching that Adam failed, Noah failed, and Israel failed to establish the rule of God’s law. Theonomists who wish to be orthodox would shrink from saying that Jesus failed, but one might infer as much from some of their statements.
Christians who focus on inward holiness rather than on the reconstruction of the world are derisively condemned by theonomists as “pietists.” The epithet applies as well to those who view the Christian life in terms of trustingly and prayerfully awaiting the kingdom. Rushdoony deems pietism to be an “infection” reflective of “paganism,” while North and Chilton describe pietists as “mush-mouthed, spineless, lily-livered milksops.” Theonomists, it might be noted, pride themselves on letting others know where they stand. They stand with the church as “the people of the law.” The law, in turn, is composed of laws. The Mosaic law as the right order for all peoples includes ceremonial, moral, and case law. As we have seen, the entire law is obligatory for “the people of the law,” except where a specific regulation is abrogated by the New Testament. Some of the more arcane disputes between theonomists have to do with the contemporary application of ceremonial laws respecting diet, menstrual purity, and ritual sacrifice. Arcane but understandable, given the presuppositions and the consequent need to reinvent Christian ethics.
In addition to the ceremonial law is the moral law, which reflects the absolute righteousness of God. The moral law provides the general principles, while the third kind of law, case law, specifies their application. Case law is also referred to as “standing judicial law” or “civil law.” The moral law, and the case law expounding it, are understood in terms of “revelational presuppositionalism,” and here the name of the late Cornelius Van Til is frequently invoked. Van Til taught what he viewed as a radically biblical epistemology in which the only presuppositions to be admitted to Christian thought as authoritative are those to be found in the revealed word of Scripture. While invoking Van Til, some theonomists also seem to be interested in finding a place for natural reason and even natural law. (Thus the ambivalence about Kuyper, mentioned earlier.) This may be a developing inconsistency in an enterprise marked by an obsessive determination to be consistent. But it has not, at least for some theonomists, tempered the crusade to reconstruct the world on the basis of Bible Law.
Some Reconstructionists express resentment of the way their critics focus on their view of capital crimes in connection with Bible law. In that view, as we have seen, the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for murder, gross negligence resulting in death, gross incorrigibility in teenage children, rape, adultery, homosexual acts, apostasy, and idolatry. In addition, Gary North has argued that death by stoning is a necessary part of the Mosaic code. He notes that stoning has a number of other things in its favor. Stones are plentiful and cheap, no single blow can be traced to any one thrower (thus reducing guilt feelings), group stone-throwing underscores collective responsibility for crime, and the practice usefully reminds us of God’s crushing the head of Satan, as mentioned in Genesis 3.
It seems hardly surprising that such views should attract considerable attention, but those who hold them insist that the attention is exaggerated. They point out that they are not advocating the death penalty today to punish, for example, homosexual acts. Their proposal would be applicable, they point out, only in a reconstructed society that may be thousands of years away. And in a reconstructed society the level of righteousness will be such that capital crimes will be almost unheard of. To which the ctitics of theonomy might respond that the time factor is quite irrelevant. In their view we should resist taking the first step toward a destination whose distance makes it no less grotesque. And the assurance that very few people will be stoned to death for apostasy, for example, is small comfort for those who think that apostasy does not belong in the criminal code at all.
A reconstructed world ruled by future Rushdoonyites will not, needless to say, be democratic. Rushdoony is straightforward in condemning democracy as a “heresy.” He writes that he is in agreement with John Dewey on the proposition that “supernatural Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.” Nor is it sufficient to say that Rushdoony’s animus toward democracy is simply toward the absolute democracy or raw majoritarianism of the vox populi, vox dei variety. His opposition to democracy and any form of legally protected pluralism is enprincipled, as it should be in the argument of a reflective theocrat. The free exercise of religion, for example, must be only for the free exercise of true religion. As Rushdoony says, “The right have rights,” thus echoing the Roman Catholic dictum of an earlier day that “error has no rights.”
Theonomist George Grant writes in a publication of Dominion Press: “It is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest.” Nor does David Chilton want to leave the purpose of the enterprise in doubt: “The Christian goal for this world is the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics, in which every area of life is redeemed and placed under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the rule of God’s law.” To those who might be offended by such ambitions of conquest, the new crusaders have a ready answer, declaring, in effect: Extremism in the defense of dominion is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of a reconstructed world is no virtue. (To be sure, there are “moderate” theonomists who downplay the language of conquest and emphasize gradual transformation through Christian influence, but their hostility to a theological legitimization of rights in a democratic and pluralistic society is no less rigorous.)
Theonomy would no doubt strike most Americans as a particularly outlandish and easily dismissable effluent of Fundamentalist fanaticism. Others might, not without reason, view it as an alarmingly dangerous development. Of course the influence of theonomy is not so great as its advocates suggest, but it is not inconsiderable, and it is growing. House and Ice in Dominion Theology trace some of the major personalities and organizations that have come under the influence of theonomist thought, whether as full-fledged proponents or as fellow travelers, so to speak. Theonomy currently shapes a good deal of conservative Christian writing on the Constitution and the moral basis of law. Its real growth market, however, may be among charismatic and pentecostal Christians who are the chief constituency of, among others, Pat Robertson. As is the way with ideas, theonomist doctrine has insinuated itself in circles where people would be not at all comfortable to think of themselves as theonomists. This writer can attest to increasing encounters with ideas clearly derived from Christian Reconstructionism even among conservatives in the mainline/oldline churches. It is worth inquiring why theonomy is so attractive to so many.
Such an inquiry is aided by an incipient literature on what “went wrong” with the religious right. Of special note in this connection is The Seduction of Power: Preachers, Politics, and the Media by Ed Dobson and Ed Hindson (Revell, 1988). The authors, who were themselves in on the ground floor of organizations such as Moral Majority, underscore the widespread disillusionment among conservative activists after eight years of the Reagan administration. “Christian America” appears to be no nearer than when the religious right was launched in the late seventies. To be sure, almost nobody doubts that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists were critical to the last three presidential elections, but being a major player in the Republican Party is a far cry from having turned the world right side up. Christians who for decades had been withdrawn, and in part excluded, from politics came to the political enterprise with unreasonable, even apocalyptic, expectations. Disillusionment was predictable. They had no theologically informed political philosophy that could sustain long-term engagement in public contest over the ordering of society. In addition, Dobson and Hindson note that many Evangelicals are unconscious monarchists who really believed that the new era would dawn with the placement of “our man”—and despite Reagan’s divorce and vague religiosity, he was viewed as their man—on the throne. But of course, that did not happen.
Enter theonomy. Dobson and Hindson write: “The proponents of a theocratic reconstruction of society are to be commended for their serious scholarship and well-reasoned argumentation. However, it is also these qualities that make the reconstructionists so appealing to political neophytes. They seem to be providing the extremists in the New Right with a clearly defined agenda that is antihumanist, antisecularist, and antisocialist. As a result, some of the most contradictory allies imaginable have rallied to this cause, including fundamentalists, charismatics, and even some groups with cultic overtones.” One might object that the argumentation of the theonomists is more often obsessive and fevered than well-reasoned, and the pedantry of bloated footnoting should not be mistaken for scholarship. One may also be permitted to doubt whether there is, in the explosion of theonomic writing, one major new idea or finding that anyone outside theonomy’s presuppositional circle need feel obliged to take seriously. Nonetheless, Dobson and Hindson are unquestionably right that theonomy holds for many the promise of a rationale for continued political engagement after yet another god that failed.
The inclusion of “the most contradictory allies” is a strategy consciously, perhaps cynically, advanced by some theonomists. House and Ice speak of people who become involved in theonomy “through the back door” because they are prepared to join forces with anyone who agrees with them on specific issues, or with anyone who has declared war on the enemies who are also theirs. Theonomist writers boast of premillennialists who have become “operational postmils.” Gary North noted in the early eighties: “Christians are rallying to support Falwell and others like him who stand up and fight. In doing so, they are steadily abandoning premillennialism, psychologically if not officially.” Similarly, says North, pentecostalists are asking, “If God can heal a sick person, why can’t He heal a sick society?” The theonomic answer is that he most certainly can and will if Christians act like Joshua of old in conquering the land that is already theirs. This way of thinking has an understandable appeal to charismatics of the “positive confession” variety who embrace the mandate to “claim the gift that is already yours.” In a formulation that some charismatics might not find entirely happy, North has asserted that the Reconstructionists are the brains of the movement, while the charismatics are the feet.
In addition to those whom Dobson and Hindson call extremists, theonomy appeals to conservatives of an anti-modern, populist, and even libertarian disposition. The reconstructed society envisioned is essentially medieval and feudal. The movement is powerfully motored by the passions of ordinary people (with extraordinary leaders, to be sure) in populist rebellion against their supposed betters. And, despite the proposed use of civil government to punish the violation of Bible law, reconstructionism strikes a profoundly anti-statist posture. The modern state, it is asserted, is driven by a Satanic ambition to control all of life. Bible law favors private property rights, while the state is socialistic. Bible law requires decentralization of authority, a preference for philanthropy over government services, and a spirit of economic initiative and efficiency. On all these scores the state is the enemy. As North puts it, “Satan is a consummate bureaucrat.” Many who are hardly extremist might be inclined to agree, and some of them have apparently decided that it is expedient to take a benign attitude toward a movement that has the potential of rallying so many to the cause of capitalist freedom. Rushdoony and others rightly profess to be revolutionaries, but it is a revolutionary doctrine that, at least for the foreseeable future, can do useful service for sundry conservatisms.
There is also a deeply American dimension of optimism in theonomy. The distance from Norman Vincent Peale to Rousas John Rushdoony is not so great as may at first appear. Victorious living, positive thinking, possibility thinking, dominion theology—all are entrenched in the can-do tradition of what used to be called muscular Christianity. It is the perduring power of what Luther called “the theology of glory,” as opposed to “the theology of the cross.” Daring to do the seemingly impossible, such as conquering the world for the reconstruction of humanity, may seem like awesome hubris, unless of course, you have the sure word of God that you are commanded and enabled to do it. In that event, audacity is obedience and pride is faith.
In considering the attractions of theonomy, one should not discount the honest and irrepressibly Christian yearning for the coming of the kingdom. A century ago Alfred Loisy observed that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God but what arrived was the church. The disappointment was and is understandable. Forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, the grace to endure, and the hope of glory are all very nice, but they are not entirely satisfying if one’s heart was set on the transformation of the world. Why settle for the hope of glory if there is the prospect of glory now? Theonomist literature is replete with dismissals of traditional piety as “escapist” and “irrelevant to the real world.” Our Lord’s Great Commission, in theonomist thought, is not simply to evangelize the world but to reorganize the world. In fact, it is said, you cannot have one without the other.
George Grant again: “Personal redemption is not the do-all and end-all of the Great Commission. Thus, our evangelism must include sociology and well as salvation; it must include reform and redemption, culture and conversion, a new social order as well as a new birth, a revolution as well as a regeneration. Any other kind of evangelism is short-sighted and woefully impotent. Any other kind of evangelism fails to live up to the high call of the Great Commission.” And so said Walter Rauschenbusch on behalf of the Social Gospel, and so says Juan Luis Segundo on behalf of liberation theology, and so say all who would, in the words of Jesus, take the kingdom of heaven by force. (Some theonomists may object to such a characterization. Their focus is on evangelizing and education, they say, not the forceful seizure of power. In fact Rushdoony and others have been critical of the new religious right’s belief that it could establish righteousness through political action. Such objections are of limited relevance. The fact remains that theonomists claim to have a biblical blueprint for the reordering of society and”whether through evangelizing and education or through direct political action”that kingdom design is to be implemented by, among other things, the agency of civil government.)
We asked at the start whether theonomy is a temporary aberration, an instance of an abiding temptation, or a breakthrough to a new understanding of Christian responsibility for the world. Dobson and Hindson, among others, have suggested that, for all its failings, theonomy might turn out to be a helpful provocation toward a Christian rethinking of the presuppositions of political engagement. Perhaps they are right. But it is likely to be such a provocation in the same way that sickness concentrates the mind on the importance of health. In my judgment, there is little doubt that theonomy is an aberration of historic Christianity, but whether it is all that temporary is another matter. As it has moved from eccentric marginality to a position of some influence, so it could, just conceivably, go on to become the dominant system of thought in the religious right. Such a development would have inestimable consequences for the relationship between religion and American public life.
Certainly theonomy manifests an abiding temptation in our Judeo-Christian history. As brilliantly analyzed in Norman Cohn’s classic The Pursuit of the Millennium, there have always been, and no doubt will always be, those who are determined to get it all together before God gets it all together. The Zealots of the first century, Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth, Thomas Muenzer in the sixteenth, the Social Gospel movement of the nineteenth, the “German Christians” of fifty years go, and the “radical evangelicals” and liberationists of today are all instantiations of a perennial impulse. In some of these instances there are premillennialists, in others postmillennialists, and in yet others there is a quite complete indifference to the question of the millennium. It finally does not matter whether, with premillennial enthusiasts, we believe we are precipitating the return of Christ or, with postmillennial enthusiasts, we believe we are establishing in history the “crown rights” that the King will one day return to claim. Enthusiasts of both stripes are alike in asserting a warrant and a blueprint from God for the reconstruction of the world in accord with his revealed will.
It is not true that the only choice is between enthusiasm and quietism, dominion and passivity, conquest and escapism. Christian engagement in worldly tasks, including the task of politics, is sustained not by the expectation of apocalypse or by the mandate to power but by love of God and neighbor. By love Christians are sustained for the duration, and nobody knows how long the duration may be. “And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6). Unlike in many other times and places, Christians in America do have opportunity to do good also through participation in politics. Often doing good takes the form of preventing the evil that may be done if politics is left to others, and we may well discover that preventing evil is a full-time job.
What then is the motive for political engagement if it is not to precipitate or establish the kingdom? It is obedience to the command to care for his creation, it is love for the neighbor, it is the joy of participating in God’s unknown purposes, it is the pleasure of contest and collaboration with others in the sure knowledge that we are forgiven our inevitable failures, it is membership in the community of faith that, however imperfectly, anticipates the consummation, it is the assurance that the principalities and powers of the present age do not have the last word, it is the resurrection confidence of victory over the radical evil within ourselves and the world of which we are part, it is the hope of final vindication in which nothing that is done for Christ will be lost. It is enough.
There are reasons practical, strategic, and moral for hoping that theonomy is a quickly passing aberration. Its explicit animus toward democracy cannot help but reinforce suspicion of conservative Christian participation in the public square. Theonomy’s relentless exclusion of Jews, as Jews, from God’s covenantal design precludes any religiously informed basis for Jewish-Christian cooperation. The identification of a blueprint for social reconstruction with the Gospel of Christ will surely bring discredit upon the latter, for the former will surely fail as every such grand design for reordering society does fail. The inflation of expectations for social transformation will, once again, set people up for certain disillusionment. The overweening presumption that one is doing the will of God so unequivocally that others must be either converted or destroyed cannot help but result in the seductions of proud power or the equally pernicious seductions of angry powerlessness. In addition, such presumption readily provides a warrant for manipulating others so that they become, as Mr. North might say, operationally converted. (Theonomists have suggested that, in a reconstructed world, there might be “sanctuaries” for non-theonomists, along the lines of Jewish ghettos in the middle ages. The prospect of such tolerance is not likely to relieve the anxieties of those deemed to be outside the circle of the righteous.)
Beyond reasons practical, strategic, and moral is the theological reason for hoping that the theonomic delusion will quickly pass. Its moralizing and legalizing of the Gospel of God’s grace is a dull heresy peddled to disappointed people who are angry because they have not received what they had no good reason to expect. The theological objection to the theonomic temptation will likely never be put better than it was by St. Paul: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Galatians 3).
Representative Theonomist Writings
Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Go., 1977, 1984.
David Chilton, Paradise Restored: An Eschatology of Dominion. Reconstruction Press, 1985.
David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation. Dominion Press, 1987.
Gary DeMar, Ruler of the Nations: Biblical Blueprints for Government. Dominion Press, 1987.
Gary DeMar, The Debate over Christian Reconstruction. Dominion Press, 1988.
George Grant, The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Blueprints for Political Action. Dominion Press, 1987.
James Jordan, The Sociology of the Church: Essays in Reconstruction. Geneva Ministries, 1986.
Gary North, An Introduction to Christian Economics. Craig Press, 1973.
Gary North, Unconditional Surrender: God’s Program for Victory. Institute for Christian Economics, 1981.
Gary North, Backward Christian Soldiers? An Action Manual for Christian Reconstruction. Institute for Christian Economics, 1984.
Gary North, Honest Money: Biblical Principles of Money and Banking. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
R. J. Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Go., 1970.
R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Go., 1973.
R. J. Rushdoony, God’s Plan for Victory: The Meaning of Postmillennialism. Thoburn Press, 1977.
Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper: Dominion by Covenant. Institute for Christian Economics, 1987.
* Reconstructionism has been around long enough, and its influence has expanded far enough, to elicit numerous critical responses. The first book-length critique is Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse?—An Analysis of Christian Reconstructionism by H. Wayne House and Thomas Ice. (Multnomah, Portland, OR, 460 pp., $15.95.) The book intends to leave no doubt that, all in all, Reconstructionism is more curse than blessing. The authors are dispensational premillennialists and much of the book is taken up with disputes of interest chiefly to millennialist Fundamentalists. But it contains an excellent bibliography and much useful background on the theonomist movement. The book is warmly endorsed by leading Evangelicals such as Charles Colson, Norman Geisler, Dave Hunt, and John MacArthur, indicating the formidable opposition that Reconstructionism is winning for itself.
** An unpublished paper by Jordan offers a trenchant critique of the House and Ice book. The gravamen of Jordan’s argument is that House and Ice are dispensationalists, subscribing to a nineteenth-century novelty that excludes in principle any Christian amelioration of the social condition prior to the End Time. Dispensationalists, Jordan tellingly points out, must oppose not only Reconstructionism but every exponent of a positive Christian influence on the social order from Irenaeus to T. S. Eliot. (Jordan’s paper is available from Biblical Horizons, Box 132011, Tyler, TX 75713.) Gary North concludes his polemic against the House and Ice book with the observation, “Christians are tired of hearing theological defenses for the supposedly inevitable failure of Christians in the so-called Church Age. This weariness, and not our specific responses, is what has sealed the doom of dispensationalism.” (Dispensationalism in Transition, Vol. 1 No. 9, Tyler, TX)
Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things.