Editor’s Note: This is part 5 in our Lyceum Disputation series considering the nature and validity of theonomy. Stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.
A few years ago, I wrote to a friend teaching at a Christian college to say that I’d be in town for a while. Could I be of service? Perhaps deliver a guest lecture or team-teach a class? Over the years, I had learned the power of being from out-of-town, or at least being not being the same familiar face. Everyone who’s sat through training led by an “expert” comprehends the former. Every parent understands the latter. You can tell your child something 20 times, but it becomes profound when uttered by someone else.
As it so happened, the week’s topic was Christian Reconstruction (CR), particularly Theonomy. My friend had assigned selections from Greg Bahnsen (included in Gary Scott Smith’s God and Politics: Four Views on Reformation of Government) and students were to present reaction papers in a seminar discussion. I would lead the second half of the seminar.
“Wow,” I thought to my nostalgic self, “are there still Theonomists?” I myself had left it aside many years ago, and my old network of theonomy congregated in print. I hadn’t looked for social media groups, chat forums, etc., so I didn’t know the state of the movement.
Knowing the lesson plan, however, I got to work. I presumed that students would dislike Bahnsen, Theonomy, and CR. But whether they did, and why they did, and whether I agreed or disagreed with them, or it, was irrelevant. My job as a scholar, as I understand it, is to enable an informed understanding and discourage knee-jerking for or against CR.
Better understanding would begin with context to discern CR’s virtues and vices. And so far as I am concerned, the best context begins with history—not that CR has much of an echo in historical Reformed Protestantism. It is, so far as I’m concerned, ahistorical—as ahistorical from a Reformed perspective as the new Two Kingdom theology of Professor VanDrunen, for example. I also think VanDrunen’s opponents in Neo-Calvinism are ahistorical. In short, I don’t find any of this consistent with (at least) the first two centuries of the Reformation—Professor VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought notwithstanding. I read it just after doing a lot of work to improve my dissertation for publication, and I’d never read a book that argued so persuasively against its own thesis.
Ahistorical theologies tend to attract, or at least dialogue with, other ahistorical theologies. Neo-Calvinism is, not coincidentally, often known to rank-and-file Reconstructionists not because they have read a word of Kuyper but because he was influential on the founders of CR, especially RJ Rushdoony. One can, for example, sometimes sniff out CR adherents by their invocation of “sphere sovereignty” much as one can identify a reader of Eric Voegelin by their use of the phrase “immanentize the eschaton.” A great difference, of course, is that this latter group sometimes deploys the phrase tongue-in-cheek. Sadly, Theonomists have very little sense of irony.
To lay a historical foundation, I provided the students with selections from the Sixty-Seven Articles of Zwingli (1523), the Geneva Confession (1536), the Second Helvetic Confession, the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Westminster Confession (1647). I also gave them some selections from Part Five (addressing historical connections) of William Barker and Robert Godfrey’s Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Discerning whether or not CR (an essentially Reformed movement) is consistent with the Reformed tradition, or Reformed catholicity, should begin with our tradition’s founders.
Also, because I like to complicate things, I presumed that these documents would demonstrate that the earliest Protestant reformers were not liberals—progressive or classical—because I expected that criticism of CR would be coming from a liberal perspective. The point here was not to dismiss liberalism. I was hoping, if things went in the right direction, to perhaps even spark a broader discussion of how much our American liberal proclivities (again, whatever flavor of liberalism one chooses) may conflict with our Reformed roots. To discourage a panicky reductionist critique of CR as “Christian Nationalism” or “Theocracy” threatening to run roughshod over American political institutions, rights, and liberties, I also gave them selections from Gary DeMar and Gary North on what CR is and isn’t.
More about those bright and well-meaning young folks, and their reaction to all of this, later. For now, however, let me shift the “narrative” (as they say) to a story about another bright and well-meaning young person: myself in the 1990s, the golden age of CR.
I was in my second year of graduate study of political science. For various reasons, graduate school and I weren’t getting along. This all changed, sort of, when I discovered some of Gary North’s books in the library. I’ve been told that a lot of university libraries had North’s books, and that was probably especially true of universities with limited budgets. They didn’t have them because the librarians necessarily vetted them for purchase. Rather, North’s Institute for Christian Economics sent them to libraries for free in the hope that they’d get shelved. I can’t remember the titles I found, and a scan of North’s titles published prior to that year doesn’t jog my memory.
I still recall sitting out on my balcony and soaking up North’s acerbic prose. I can’t imagine how I first connected any of those titles with what I was doing in my graduate seminars, but I did. Somehow, I found lenses to view not only the subjects of political theory or history but also theorists or historians themselves. I think it was the politically and socially reactionary character of CR that pleased me most, and I’m not alone in this. Those who take the Bible seriously like pretty much anything that says “More of God’s Word would fix that.” It is only after one gets into some of the weeds of theology, or at least historical theology, that what CR means by “more of God’s Word” becomes impossible logically.
Insofar as CR says not only “Only God’s law can save us,” but also that “[insert opponent here] does not uphold God’s law and is therefore part of the problem,” CR becomes even more appealing for someone in his early 20s. I sometimes think life would be easier for me and some of my younger interlocutors if I interrupted conversations to ask, “Sorry: how old are you?” That would save us a lot of time, and I don’t do it enough. Young people are drawn to bipolar analysis: “You love scripture or you’re an antinomian pietist,” is all over CR.
If you’re thinking, “Things were screwed up in the 90s?” Yes. The 80s and 90s may feel like halcyon days now, but there was a lot of cultural rot then, and the culture wars of the 80s made sure we knew about it. Fresh from the trenches of those culture wars, I think this was part of CR’s appeal. A lot of evangelical leaders later confessed that they were secretly reading Reconstructionist authors, and it shows.
I was also attending a PCA church where we were all quite taken with the Puritans. Not having done the due diligence examining CR’s claim that the Puritans were Theonomists (e.g., Samuel Logan’s chapter in the aforementioned Theonomy: A Reformed Critique), my dabbling in CR met my fondness for Puritans to energize the remaining semester of graduate school. Thankfully, I didn’t consider CR as a subject for my MA thesis, but I did attempt something on Reformed political thought generally, especially in Early America. Secondary sources included the usual suspects: Perry Miller, Edmund Morgan, Alan Simpson, Alan Heimert, et al. Primary sources were fairly hodgepodge, drawing haphazardly from anthologies and edited collections of primary sources.
I’d say more about the thesis, but I’ve tried to forget it. I’m surprised I’m even admitting to writing it. I hope you will forget about it even more quickly than you learned of its existence. It is terrible. It is terrible for three reasons. Two of them concern CR. Besides the Theonomists who misled me to think that the first generations of Protestants were Theonomists, the other culprits were the Van Tillians who convinced me that good Protestants rejected natural law. The problem may not be so much Van Til as North, of course, who never met a hyperbole he didn’t like. Van Til discouraged the idea of “intellectual neutrality,” but it was North who declared war against everyone just to make sure. The CR scorn of natural law is actually more of a departure from the Reformed tradition than Theonomy. Together, however, they’re like ham with cheese.
The secret sauce in my ham and cheese sandwich, however, was Leo Strauss. Who saw that coming? Rightly or wrongly, I coupled Straussian concerns about “modernity,” which I read to be secularism…and through the CR lens, natural law. Strauss, after all, insisted on separating reason and revelation. It didn’t help that most Straussians know just about nothing, arguably less than nothing, about Protestant political theology.
Between CR and Straussianism, I knew about as little as I could about what really happened in Protestant Reformed political theology. But as things sometimes go, they can always get stranger. And the point here is not the particularly strange circumstances of providence in my own life, but to point out something else ahistorical about CR.
Having completed my M.A., I returned home and got married. I kept reading all the CR magazines and increasingly, the books. Scary Gary’s regular newsletter was a favorite (until Y2k, at least) as was the Chalcedon Report and Council of Chalcedon. My wife and I even attended a big CR conference at Pastor Joe Morecraft’s church near Atlanta. Well, not that big really. But we did get to meet RJ Rushdoony, Ken Gentry, and Greg Bahnsen. Bahnsen had mellowed quite a bit by that point, and it was not long before his death. I’m still pleased that I had that chance to meet them and hear them in person.
I also started adjunct teaching at colleges. One of my courses was a one-semester overview of economics, and part of what formed my view of economics was CR of course. The contradictions with centuries of Reformed Protestantism are, again, pretty glaring. CR’s proponents were essentially libertarian laissez-faire. Their consideration of economic matters begins with Mises rather than Melanchthon. This is not what the Reformers taught. Read, for example, Mark Valeri’s Heavenly Merchandise. Valeri doesn’t write about CR, but he does demonstrate how quickly a mercantile culture conquered the more traditional Reformed Protestant opposition to sumptuary laws or loose credit, for example.
Nothing about the Austrian character of CR economics should be surprising, after all. Michael McVicar has ably demonstrated how CR was hatched in Cold War think tanks like the William Volker Charities Fund or the Foundation for Economic Education who considered laissez-faire capitalism, arguably the heart of Frank Meyer’s fusionism, as the tip of the spear against communism.
The irony of all this liberalism tucked inside Theonomy is usually missed by its critics who want to cast the whole thing as a totalitarian theocracy. However, in a refereed journal essay published almost ten years after we first wrote it, an economist co-author and I laid it out at length. Libertarian and Austrian economics journals wanted nothing to do with the essay. They wanted nothing to do with CR, and probably not because of some personal bridge that North or Rushdoony happily burned. They rejected CR’s criticisms of their methodology and epistemology (which we presented without objection). They also couldn’t reconcile Theonomy with liberalism. In this respect, I think they were more intellectually honest with themselves than the Reconstructionists are.
Although I think that capitalism’s proponents and critics typically make their judgments in a realm of abstractions – proponents caring little for the social costs of hollowing out a town to advance global equity or use “comparative advantage” to save money on labor costs (see Tim Carney’s Alienated America, for example), and critics confusing markets with perverse government incentives (e.g., 2008 financial crisis), I’m a fan of laissez-faire economics. Markets efficiently reflect the preferences of their members, for better or worse. Economic freedom unleashes creativity and industriousness – the most important part being space for our God-ordained vocations. Free enterprise has lifted billions out of poverty.
All of that said, however, I’m not convinced that centuries of Christendom exegeting scripture about all matters now falling under “political economy” was finally and providentially crystalized in the pages of The Freeman. Jesus did not teach the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20 because he didn’t like the minimum wage.
Around this time, I was also finishing up a return to graduate school to earn my PhD. The reading necessary for my dissertation on Reformed political theology over two centuries (later improved and released as Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology) liberated me from CR. The same can be said for pretty much all my scholarship since. No need to elaborate on that, however.
As for CR’s persistence in the decades since, let’s return to my friend’s students. It turns out that I was right. The students were almost entirely critical of Bahnsen and Theonomy. One student liked his emphasis on the Bible, which reminded her of her conservative grandfather, as I recall. We didn’t talk much about the readings I hoped they’d review as preparation, but that’s fine. What interested me most was how their objections were not hermeneutical or exegetical, for example, but ethical. Bahnsen said that under Theonomy homosexuals would be executed, and this hit them especially hard. Some immediately deployed some interpretation of Mosaic law to combat another interpretation: should not same-sex attracted individuals be like strangers or minorities in Israel, entitled to special protection? And did not Jesus spare the life of the woman taken in adultery? And though we didn’t get too deep into conversations about public policy, the students did think that it too should fall along lines dictated by the Mosaic law – but not laissez-faire economics. I doubt that progressive welfare economics is the fruit that Reconstructionists intended by the phrase “Faith for all of life.”
I began a series of precise questions. It turned out that their objection was not to using the Old Testament for ethics. They did not think, as many evangelicals probably do, that Jesus had abrogated the Mosaic Law to replace it with some “New Testament ethics” or whatever. No, they liked the principles of Hebraic social justice, social or economic, as they interpreted them. Furthermore, they said that they felt an obligation to implement those same principles of social justice if given the opportunity—whether as voters or as office-holders.
So, as it turns out, there are still Theonomists after all.