A Critique of Theonomy and Reconstructionism

12 Oct 2010 A Critique of Theonomy and Reconstructionism

By Doug Schouten (first printed in a Cloverdale ARPA Alert – 2006)

old churchThere is a new documentary [1] available for preview on the internet that follows a class of young children as they go through an evangelical ‘boot camp’. Among the footage in this disturbing film are scenes in which the children dress up in army fatigues and are called to be holy warriors, and where they are told to lay down and bless a cutout of President Bush. To anyone with even a modest level of discernment, this documentary represents the outer fringes of the evangelical movement. However, besides the harm it presents to the true image of Christ’s church, it highlights one of the undercurrents within the evangelical movement, that is, the concept of Christian reconstructionism. Over the past two decades this erroneous understanding of Christian political action has achieved hegemony in a number of denominations in the United States, and is now making inroads into Canada. Reformed Christians are by no means immune to its influences.

In proper response to this movement, we must be prepared to uncover first, what reconstructionism is and where it goes awry, and second, what the correct vision for Christian political involvement is. In order to inform our choices in how we engage politically as Christians, we should have a good understanding of our intentions and appropriate methods.

What is Reconstructionism?

Reconstructionism is a concept of Christian political action which has the aim of reconstructing society according to Old Testament law and practice [2]. The biblical law of the Old Testament is called the ‘tool of dominion’ by the leaders of this movement [3], who understand the Law as a means of reconstructing society in preparation for the second coming of Christ. One of the salient features of reconstructionism is not only an application of the moral principles of Old Testament law, but also a strict literal interpretation of specific laws and penal sanctions [2]. This is called theonomy, which contains the Greek roots ‘theos’ (divine) and ‘nomos’ (law).

Reconstructionism was born largely out of a response to dispensationalism, which for decades before had largely ruled the evangelical movement [4]. Dispensationalism taught that we are currently in the ‘great parenthesis’ between the ascension and return of Christ. In this theology, the ascension was the beginning of one dispensation marred by continual decline, while the great rapture and return of Christ is the beginning a new glorious dispensation of a thousand years. This view was informed largely by a pre-millennial understanding of the end of times, that Christ would return before His great thousand year reign on earth (Revelation 20:2) would begin. On the other hand, reconstructionism is largely post-millennial in nature: it assumes there will be a thousand year glorious period of Christ’s dominion (or at least, Christian dominion) on earth before the return of the King.

The problem with pre-millennial dispensationalism was that many Christians unquestionably bought into a degenerative and fatalistic view of history, and found it impossible to work for positive, constructive change [4]. In this view, God’s providence is seriously underestimated and He is left only to pull down the curtains at the end of history. One of the leading reconstructionists, R. Rushdoony states “the rapture generation is the useless generation”. What Rushdoony means is that the dispensationalist interpretation hampers the effectiveness of Christian witness in the world because of an underlying pessimism. Pre-millennialism expects no positive change to occur regardless of the level of Christian ‘saltiness’.

As with many movements, the pendulum began to swing to the other side. In response to the liberal shift in American politics during the late twentieth century, many evangelicals became dissatisfied with the fatalism they had been raised on [4]. Post-millennial interpretations and speculation about the end times became much more popular in books such as “Listen America!” by Jerry Falwell, who argued that Christians could “no longer be silent about the sins that are destroying this nation” [5]. Gary North, one of the leaders of the reconstructionist movement, saw that more people were talking about the sovereignty of God than about the rapture. In other words, a post-millennial spirit supplanted pre-millennial thinking [2]. The primary reason for the increasing popularity of theonomy and reconstructionism was due both to the religious wasteland created by liberal theology and to a general social deterioration [3].

A Reformed Critique

A proper critique of reconstructionism and theonomy is too lengthy to be devolved here (refer to Rev. Aasman, G. Nederveen and W. Barker for extensive analyses). However, we can address the two most important features of this doctrine, namely the theonomic position of the continuity of Old Testament law, and the post-millennial interpretation of the end times.

Critique of Theonomy

The basic theonomic presumption is that there is continuity in law with the Old Testament unless the New Testament specifically mentions otherwise. This point is argued in the context of God’s immutability: since God did not change between the two periods, the content of his law remains the same, proponents of theonomy will argue. Theonomy also contends that therefore, the penal sanctions of the law as instituted in ancient Israel hold for the whole of civil society today. The reasoning for this claim lies in the apparent two-fold purpose of the law (espoused by Calvin and Luther) which states that (i) the law leads us to Christ by reminding us of our sin, and (ii) it also serves to restrain the evil of unregenerate man. It is by focusing on the latter that the extrapolation of the Old Testament penalties to the present can be established, by assuming continuity in the purpose of the law.

There are three points on which theonomy falters. Foremost among them is the ‘infeasibility of its own methodology’ [3] in presuming continuity in the penalties of the law. If one takes such a methodology, one must stick with it [3], so that sins such as idolatry, witchcraft, or failure to observe the Sabbath are punishable by death. However, theonomy fails to stake its claim here. In some cases, continuity is applied (homosexuality is punishable by death) but in others it is qualified by some other consideration (failure to worship God on Sunday is not punishable by death). It can be said that on this point theonomy dies the death of a thousand qualifications. The basic assumptions of theonomy are very general in nature, but they are applied on a case-by-case basis that removes all generality. Leaders of this movement cannot even agree on which of the laws must be directly applied in New Testament situations, and which ones can be safely ignored.

Second, theonomy fails to recognize the difference between the state of Israel and civil society today. Knudsen states that we must “recognize that there is not only a cultural difference between Israel and America, there is also a difference in their respective places in redemptive history” [6]. One of the great dangers in failing to understand this is that the true religion becomes co-opted by a civil religion in which the nation (here America, Canada, or western culture for that matter) becomes fused with the chosen people of God.  Worship of God and adoration of the nation become one and the same, if we fail to recognize the difference between Israel as God’s chosen people and the civil state of today [4]. Besides, in reference to the establishment of the state of Israel in I Samuel 8, it is clear that the Old Testament Israel was not an ideal situation. Even if we assumed continuity here, we should not aspire to this imperfect combination of church and state. Rev. Aasman states “there is no parallel between Israel and the civil government today … such an idea is based on a non-Christological approach to the Old Testament” [3].

Finally, theonomy fails to understand the discontinuity in the nature of the law between the Old and the New Testament. Paul speaks of this especially in the book of Galatians, where he describes how the Law acts as a custodian or teacher until the coming of Christ. Now that Christ has come and fulfilled the law, we are no longer bound to it in the same way. Rather we obey the law through the Spirit of Christ who imprints the law on our hearts. Luther also argues in this way in the context of the civil purpose of the Law:

“Every law is given to restrain sin. Does it not then make men righteous? No. In refraining from murder, adultery, theft, or other sins, I do so under compulsion because I fear the jail, the noose….” [7].

Applying the entire Law to a primarily unchristian society will not create an increase in righteousness. This is not to say the Law has no place, but we must clearly define its place before applying it. The Law is not a legal code book for each and every situation. Calvin writes “the Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced” [8]. In Calvin’s understanding, the content of the Law is not so specific as the formulation given to the Jews, and may therefore be applied in different ways without changing its end goal. Therefore, argues Calvin, we should not disapprove of states which do not implement Mosaic Law; neither should we disdain diversity in application of the Law.

Critique of Post-Millennialism

The great end-times guessing game has become a preoccupation among many evangelical Christians as hundreds of sensationalist books have been written with dire post-millennial prophecies. Many of these predictions are based on interpretations of Matthew 24 and the Revelation of John. However, what the ‘eschatology pundits’ have often failed to realize is that just a few verses beyond their cited texts we are expressly left out of any specific knowledge of the end of times. Jesus says, “no one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven” (Matt 24:36). The last days will be much like the days of Noah before the flood, in the sense that the vast majority of people will continue living recklessly until the end. This does not mean that the Church’s witness cannot be effective. Rather, the preached Word of God works to condemn or save.

Contrary to the claims of reconstructionism, the thousand year, glorious reign of Christ prophesied in the light of post-millennial interpretations is in fact already upon us. We, right now, live in this period of Christ’s dominion on earth. One great danger of post-millennial thinking is that the idea of a future golden age becomes a “theology of glory rather than the cross” [3]. This is at the crux of Christian reconstructionism. One author has put it rather irreverently as reconstructionists fighting to “save God’s bacon” [4]. Little is mentioned in post-millennial writing about the suffering of the saints. Reconstructionism seems to pay little attention to bearing the cross of Christ.

It therefore turns out that reconstructionism is a problematic solution to a problematic doctrine. We should shy away from both the fatalism of pre-millennial dispensationalism and the dominion theology of reconstructionism. Christian reconstructionism has a wrong hermeneutic, wrong exegesis, and it is a wrong theology [3]. However, it has produced valid criticism of the great waiting for the rapture. There needs to be content to our faith and witness, which is the topic of the next part in which we analyze how Christians should engage politically.

Part 2 is below…

Sources

[1] To view it, search for “Jesus Camp Movie Preview” on http://youtube.com

[2] G. Nederveen “Theonomy: What is there to Re-construct?”. Clarion, V 50, No 11-14

[3] R. Aasman “Theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism”. Clarion, V 43, No 5-7

[4] T. Sine “Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America’s Culture Wars”

[5] J. Falwell “Listen America!” (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1980) p 22

[6] Barker, et al. “Theonomy: A Reformed Critique”

[7] Luther Commentary on Galations

[8] Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion IV xx 16

 

A Critique of Theonomy and Reconstructionism (Part Two)

To recap the theme of the last article, “the ideas in theonomy and reconstructionism fail to account for the discontinuity between the old and new covenant, and therefore fail to define an appropriate vision for Christian political involvement today.”

In this article I will try to counter the incorrect vision of theonomy, and define some important features of a Christian vision for political action. First, I will answer the question “what are the attributes of a state that is truly Christian?” Second, I will answer “how can such a state be achieved?” It is my contention that we have all answered these questions to some extent, albeit perhaps unconsciously. In our action and in our apathy we reveal underlying presuppositions concerning Christian political action. For example, in the last article we saw how a prevailing fatalism and lack of political action arose from a doctrine of pre-millennialism. It is therefore healthy to discuss these matters openly, so that we can act harmoniously in the political sphere.

A Christian State

A Christian concept of the state is bounded in two ways: (1) by an understanding of the sovereignty of God over all of the affairs of man (Eph. 1:14, II Cor. 10:4), including the princes and rulers of the present age (Ps. 2), and (2), by the stated purpose of the state, its existence being to ameliorate the sinfulness of a depraved humanity (Rom. 13:4, I Tim. 2:1-4). This understanding is largely a Kuyperian one, and goes against the grain of classical works on politics, such as those by Aristotle, who argues that politics is the highest aspiration of mankind.

Both boundaries – God’s ultimate sovereignty over, and the purpose of the state – must be considered carefully in order to determine the shape, or principle attributes of a Christian state.

Regarding the sovereignty of Christ

Acknowledging that all things in heaven and on earth have been put under the kingship of Christ the Lord has profound implications for the authorities on earth. In the first place, they derive their authority solely from His authority. No man has in himself the right to rule over another man, for otherwise such a right necessarily becomes the right of the strongest. This extends no less to a group of men. Kuyper argues, “what binding force is there for me in the allegation that one of my ancestors made a ‘social contract’ with other men of that time? As a man I stand free and bold, over against the most powerful of my fellow-man” [1]. Indeed, as there is no inherent right to rule to be found within one man, neither is such a right to be found in a majority of men. Thus the Scripture states that “by me [Christ our Wisdom] kings reign” (Proverbs 8:15) and “there is no authority except that which has been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).

This concept of Divine authority counters the moral relativism that has become prevalent in liberal democracies. For, without acknowledging the higher authority of God, democratic majorities have found themselves free to redefine morality by the authority they derive from themselves. In such a reality, yesterday’s evils are tomorrow’s virtues, and vice-versa. However, by recognizing the overarching sovereignty of Christ, an objective standard of morality is established within which the authority of any democratic majority is constrained. The state is granted the authority to prevent murder, and to maintain order. Along this vein, laws which clearly promulgate against the ordinances of the Lord would never be enacted by a truly Christian democratic state. Rather, Scriptural norms, such as the latter five of the Ten Commandments – those dealing with relationships among mankind – for example, would be enshrined constitutionally so as to remain free from the whims of majority opinion.

This must not lead to state-sanctioned religious coercion, however. Instead, the acknowledged sovereignty of Christ acts as an antidote against the tendency of the state to apply force in matters of conscience and personal liberty. This is because when the state subjects itself to Christ, it is restrained from forcing its agenda in areas which are subject only to his kingship. God alone is sovereign in salvation. Therefore, the state may not interfere in matters which Christ has desired for his church to administer, in which he alone is head by right and in fact. This “creates in us the indomitable courage incessantly to protest against the unrighteousness of [evil laws] in the name of the highest right [that is, Christ]” [1]. Over against the existentialism of natural law (the law is right, because it is the law), the Christian state enacts laws which respect the sovereignty of its King. No political regime should take upon itself the role of judging in matters of faith and conscience, for it is neither granted the authority nor does it have the ability. Scripture is clear that the keys of the kingdom of heaven are given to the church, not to the state. Faith in Christ is brought about by the preaching of the Gospel, and not by the coercion of the state[1].

Regarding the relationship of the state to the sovereignty of Christ, we conclude that a Christian state:

1.     recognizes the authority of Christ to define moral absolutes; therefore its laws reflect the laws in the Bible, especially regarding the relationships between its citizens.

2.     recognizes the sovereignty of Christ in matters of faith; therefore it will not interfere in the affairs of the Church, or in matters of conscience.

The details of how these principles are applied in practice are impossible to put to ink, but to give a few examples, the first criteria requires that a Christian state would not encourage deviant sexual relationships, whereas the second criteria would dissuade a Christian state from being overzealous in monitoring the private affairs of its citizens. For another example, the second criteria would restrain a Christian state from demanding that its citizens observe a Sabbath Day (although it might find it prudent to enforce a five or six day work week, which is an altogether practical matter).

To employ a typically Canadian cliché, the correct understanding here is neither theonomy nor human autonomy, but somewhere in between that respects the two criteria above.

The Purpose of the State

Basic to any flavour of political ideology is some statement regarding the fundamental role or purpose of the state. It is upon this distinction that we find the differences between anarchy and totalitarianism, between a welfare state and unbridled capitalism. Indeed, in our present political affairs the oft-competing forces of the secular left and right find the chief source of their disharmony in answering “what is the purpose of the state?”. The leftist maintains that the state must primarily preserve parity among its citizens, whereas the person on the right argues that maintaining order and a free market economy are the only responsibilities of government. Over against both of these conceptions, the Scriptures reveal that the primary purpose of the state is to restrain the licentiousness of a fallen humanity. It does so by functioning in the area of the second great commandment “love your neighbour as yourself.” [4]

That this is the primary purpose of the state in the New Testament era is seen most clearly in Romans 13:4 “for [the government] is God’s servant to do you good” and “[the government] is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” In one sense, the state functions as a servant of God for common grace. Much as God causes his sun to shine on the good and the evil, he provides states and governments to bring order to a world in chaos.

To see this further, consider that if not for the divisiveness of sin in pitting one person against the other, mankind would still be naturally united in a common bond, and directed to a common goal of fulfilling the commands of God. However, because of the destructive nature of our sin, a mechanical unity, one which is enforced contrary to our natural tendencies, is applied. Kuyper argues “who uses crutches, where limbs are sound?”. For what purpose would we have these governments, alliances, and states, if mankind lived in perfect harmony already? In this understanding, all the utopian ideologies, all the dreams of a one world empire (including Babel), are nothing more than a looking back on a lost paradise; they are an attempt to recreate the unity of paradise, notwithstanding sin [see note #1 at the bottom for more on this].

The Bible is also clear that besides its role in restraining evil, the government must also apply itself to establishing an environment in which the church of Christ can do its work. The church should be unfettered to evangelize within a Christian state. This is most clear from II Tim 2:1, where Paul directs Timothy to pray for the authorities so that Christians may “live peaceful and quiet lives, in all godliness and holiness.” It is important that, while refraining from active coercion in bringing the Gospel to all people, the government must be passively involved, by providing a suitable environment for the church.

How can such a state be realized?

In a fantastic series of articles in Clarion, Dr. Van Dam rewords this question under the heading “the task before us” [5]. In other words, a state that submits to the sovereignty of Christ, and one that fulfills its role in restraining evil and providing freedom for the church, can only be realized through the conscientious involvement of its citizens, especially those citizens who profess Christ. For how can we expect the state to submit to Biblical norms, when its citizens do not, especially in a democracy? Dr. Van Dam provides four ways in which we can be concretely effective, which are summarized as follows [5]:

1.     join Christian advocacy groups such as the Equipping Christians for the Public Square (ECP) Center, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, or ARPA. Support Christians in parliament.

2.     be prepared for a long struggle to change today’s secular mind set. Commit yourself and your resource to the long haul, and do not be discouraged by setbacks in the weal and woe of our struggle.

3.     keep in mind our end goal for a Christian state. We are not interested in a new theocracy, but in maintaining freedom for the church and true justice for the people of Canada.

4.     pray continually, bearing in mind that ultimately we are tools used by the Holy Spirit to bring about conversion and repentance. We will never be successful in the sense of politically getting everything we would like as Christians, but we must seek to influence society in a positive way.

 Sources

[1] A. Kuyper, Lecture III from “Lectures on Calvinism: The Stone Lectures of 1898” http://www.kuyper.org/main/publish/books_essays/article_17.shtml

[2] Jean Calvin “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Book IV, Chapter XX, § 3 & 9

[3] Acts of Synod 1905. Translated and abridged by J. Schouten (2006).

[4] W. Barker, W. Godfrey (Ed.) “Theonomy, Pluralism and the Bible.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House

[5] C. Van Dam, “Defending Christian Freedom: Our Civic Responsibility.” Clarion 55 No. 16-18 (2006).



[1] It should be noted that this was not always clear in the Reformed tradition. Consider the case of the execution of Servetus by the city of Geneva in 1553. Servetus was branded a radical heretic and condemned to death by the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland, for denying the Trinity and infant baptism. Although he did not lead the prosecution, and in fact expressed a desire for a mercifully speedy death, Calvin approved of the execution of Servetus. He also states in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that he approves of civil order directed to “prevent the true religion … from being with impunity openly violated and polluted by public blasphemy” and that “no polity can be established unless piety be its first care” [2]. Until 1905 the  Belgic Confession stated in Article 36 that “the Government must use force, if necessary the sword, to remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship.” However upon submission to Synod 1896 and 1902, committees were appointed to investigate the veracity of this claim. The deputies’ findings are available in the Acts of Synod 1905 and related material. Essentially, they found that the phrase in Article 36 is not in harmony with the teaching of God’s Word, based on texts in John 18:36, Matt. 26:52, Luke 9:55, Matt. 13:29-31,36-43, 2Cor 10:4, Eph 6:12, Rom 1:16 and 1John 5:4 [3]. The phrase was deleted from the Belgic Confession by Synod 1905, and can still be found in a footnote in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

 


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