The Christian Reconstruction / Theonomy Movement
Introduction and Origins
Within the Christian Reformed Church, due to our size and heritage, we are somewhat isolated from the theological currents and controversies which affect the smaller conservative Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. Nowhere is this more evident than in our relative lack of knowledge and concern about the Christian Reconstruction, or Theonomy, movement.
Theonomy has been a hot topic of discussion within the PCA and the OPC for almost a decade. More recently, both them the Reformed Church in the U.S. (until recently referred to as the "Eureka Classis") and the Reformed Churches in New Zealand have had study committees which examined the issue. This past year, an issue of Covenanter Witness, the monthly publication of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (the "Covenanters"), was devoted to Theonomy. In addition, a new denomination has been spawned by the movement, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the U.S.
But discussion of theonomy has not been limited to historically Calvinistic churches. The theonomic perspective has gained both proponents and opponents among a wide range of evangelicals, from fundamentalist Baptists to Charismatic televangelists. Its influence has been growing such that it was the subject of a cover story in Christianity Today (February 20, 1987) and a national public television documentary hosted by journalist Bill Moyers (December 23, 1987).
What is Theonomy?
Defining "theonomy" (literally, "God's law") can be a difficult task, because its advocates operate with several working definitions. Broadly speaking, theonomy could be defined as "the opposite of antinomianism" (and, thus, some proponents of theonomy are quick to label their opponents "antinomians"). Sometimes an inclusive definition is advanced which recognizes anyone who holds that the decalogue continues to be normative to be a theonomist. But a more precise and helpful definition of theonomy would be "the view that the penalties attached to crimes in the Old Testament law are binding on current civil governments." 1Therefore, the civil magistrate is obligated to execute witches, homosexuals, parent-abusers, and blasphemers among others.
Theonomy does not claim to be something new. Rather it "sees itself to be consistent, Reformed, covenant theology." 2It appeals to certain precedents in Calvin's Geneva, Westminster Assembly Presbyterianism, and New England Puritanism. It faults the Reformed tradition for having drifted from its moorings and pleads for a return to former times, when the church boldly proclaimed the "Crown Rights of King Jesus."
In the majority of cases, the theonomic perspective is coupled with a belief in postmillennial eschatology. Many theonomists not only claim to have a hold of the biblical blueprint for society, but they are optimistic that the edifice will be constructed before the Architect returns at His Second Coming.
Here is where the alternate terminology of "Christian Reconstruction," "Dominion Theology," and "Kingdom Theology" come into the foreground. The Kingdom of god, most theonomists teach, will eventually triumph on earth "primarily through the actions of the Church and of individuals ... Reconstructionists anticipate the day when all the nations will be explicitly Christian 'theocracies.'"3In the mean time, Christians must learn to exercise dominion in all the spheres of life, including education, family life, the church, the marketplace, and local government.
The "leading figure" and "patriarch" of the theonomic and postmillennial revival is Rousas John Rushdoony. Rushdoony's family background helps to explain his own theological stance. His father had been ordained in the Church of Scotland and had served as a Presbyterian minister in his native Armenia, which was then under the control of the Ottoman Turks. After World War I broke out and the Turks started to lose on the battlefield, they turned on the Armenians, commencing the first genocide of this century. Rushdoony's parents fled to the U.S. and Rousas was born shortly thereafter.
He was raised in a succession of Armenian Presbyterian manses around the country. As a child, Rushdoony says, he read the Old Testament constantly, even though some of his father's friends objected that it was too harsh for a tender youth. 4Elsewhere he states that "the book of Job had a formative influence in my childhood and made me a Calvinist." 5Rushdoony also attributes his position on postmillennialism and Biblical law to a saturation with Scripture from childhood on. Rushdoony followed in his father's footsteps and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He conducted mission work among Chinese-Americans and American Indians.
Early on in his ministry he became acquainted with the works of Cornelius Van Til and found them "to be the philosophical analog to the book of Job. (They) gave focus to everything that I had read in Scripture and studied in school."6Soon, Rushdoony began to display his penchant for writing and controversy, as he contributed articles to the Westminster Theological Journal and other Calvinistic magazines. The Torch and Trumpet, The Outlook's predecessor, contained its first contribution from Rushdoony in the mid-1950's. Later, installments from his first book, By What Standard?, a vigorous defense of Van Til's philosophy, appeared initially on its pages.
Lester DeKoster, then an editor of The Reformed Journal, wrote a scathing review of the book, stating that he "could not conceive of a more explicit endeavor to identify a man's thought with God's."7Articles by Rushdoony continued to be published in The Torch and Trumpet periodically, as well as reviews of his books as he became an increasingly productive author.
In April, 1963, Rushdoony came to Calvin College to debate DeKoster on the topic, "Philosophy and Politics." Much of the actual bone of contention centered on what the proper Christian approach to the state ought to be. Both of them cited Calvin's practice and Dooyeweerd's critique of Western political thought. But while DeKoster maintained that it was the role of the state to protect the spheres, as when Calvin's Geneva "fixed" the price of corn or set up a state industry to provide jobs for the unemployed, Rushdoony asserted that was not the state's role, "but, rather, the Christian man as he stands in respect to his faith, he alone can protect the spheres."8
Just prior to the publication of By What Standard?, Rushdoony had led some members of his church out of the mainline Presbyterian denomination into the OPC. He served as their pastor for a couple of years while he began increasingly to be called upon to lecture around the country. In those early years he addressed several regional conventions of the National Union of Christian Schools (now CSI). A number of those speeches were drawn together into a book, Intellectual Schizophrenia (1961), which The Banner reviewer lamented "suffers from generalization and fails to realize the gray in all our institutions, including our Christian schools."
Rushdoony left the pastorate in order to devote more time to writing and lecturing. He acquired his first protégé, Gary North, in the summer of 1963. He encouraged North to attend Westminster Seminary, which he did for one year. North then returned to California to eventually pursue a doctorate in economics and to begin his own writing career.
In October, 1965, Rushdoony began sending out a newsletter to people who supported him financially and otherwise. This was the humble beginning of the Chalcedon Report, which is still being published today. In June, 1966, Rushdoony and his backers established a non-profit organization, Chalcedon, Inc., to promote "Christian Reconstruction."
The name of the organization was inspired by the Council of Chalcedon and the creed it composed (451 A.D.). That creed emphasized the doctrine of the two distinct natures of Christ united in one person. Incidentally, the Armenian church had historically rejected this creed, a move which isolated it from most of the Christian church. Rushdoony identified Chalcedon as a turning point in Western history. By maintaining that the human and divine were distinct, even in Christ's own person, the Council had forbidden the deification of any human institution. Therefore, the state could not claim a greater share of divinity, and therefore, power, over the family, business, or the church.
Rushdoony became disillusioned with the OPC. For a number of years he continued to preach periodically and speak at the summer family camps, but he came under criticism from some quarters.
One minister wrote him to say:
I think that you would be in a more effective position if you were to lecture on such a subject as economics as a lay specialist rather than an ordained minister. Perhaps it would even be helpful to use a public auditorium rather than a church building9
In 1970, Rushdoony completely severed his relationship with the OPC, which he later called the "Orthodox Pharisees Church, wherein failure is a mark of election. Pastors who produce growth are regarded with suspicion, because growth is a mark of compromise."10
About this same time, another young man, Greg Bahnsen, came into contact with Rushdoony and was stimulated by his thinking. He, too, attended Westminster Seminary where he wrote a master's thesis which was later refined and incorporated into his influential work, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1977).
In the early 1970's, Rushdoony's immense work, The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) and North's Introduction to Christian Economics were published and their reputations grew. Bahnsen soon was reunited with them in California while he worked on his doctorate in philosophy. All three men contributed to the Chalcedon Report and a new publication, The Journal of Christian Reconstruction.
After finishing his studies, Bahnsen took a position as an apologetics professor at Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. His tenure there was one of tumult, as the number of his friends and foes grew. The controversy spilled over into the PCA at large, and has continued at varying degrees ever since.
In the summer of 1977, after Greg Bahnsen had been teaching at Reformed Seminary for a year-and-a-half, a resolution was presented on the floor of the General Assembly requesting that a study committee be appointed to examine the issue of theonomy. The General Assembly chose to refer the matter to a standing committee. The next year the committee reported back. It recommended that toleration for a multiplicity of views concerning "the application of the judicial law for today" be encouraged within the denomination.
At that same juncture (1978), because of the controversy surrounding theonomy which was brewing on campus among the faculty and students, the seminary board, for expediency's sake, offered Bahsen a year's paid leave, at which time his contract expired. The board did not cite his views as a grounds for its decision.
That fall, G. Aiken Taylor, then editor of The Presbyterian Journal, unleashed a series of articles attacking postmillennialism and theonomy. Bahsen wrote a lengthy defense, a portion of which was printed in the Journal. The series and its rebuttal provoked a lot of mail, primarily from theonomists critical of what they perceived to be Taylor's misrepresentation of their position.
As theonomic graduates of Reformed Seminary sought ordination in the PCA, several of them encountered opposition at the presbytery level because of their views. For some, their ordination was held up for a lengthy amount of time. Quite a number of judicial cases brought before the ecclesiastical courts of the PCA have been initiated by theonomists who have appealed the actions of their presbyteries.
In the mean time, the work of Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation was expanding. Rushdoony relocated from southern California to northern California, near the rural town of Vallecito. The Foundation added new staff members and contributors to its publications. Among the young scholars who became closely associated with Reconstructionist literature at this time were David Chilton and James Jordan. Both of them became theonomists primarily through reading Rushdoony's works and they both attended Reformed Seminary while Bahnsen was teaching there.
Just when, from all outward appearances, Chalcedon was progressing smoothly and its influence was growing, a division occurred within its ranks. In September, 1981, an announcement in the Chalcedon Report stated that North and Jordan had been dropped from the staff (Chilton had already had a parting of the ways with Rushdoony). No explanation was provided at the time, but subsequent indicators point to both personal and philosophical reasons.
Prior to the schism, North, who had become Rushdoony's son-in-law, had moved to Tyler, Texas. Tyler thus became the home of his Institute for Christian Economics (ICE). He employed Jordan, and eventually Chilton, as staff members. In addition, the PCA church in Tyler was pastored by a theonomist, Ray Sutton. Sutton was a graduate of Dallas Seminary who had converted from dispensationalism to theonomy, a radical change which characterizes a sizable number of theonomists.
The Texas Presbytery of the PCA "began to keep out theonomists," Sutton claimed, and it also "threatened to suspend the session" of the Tyler church because it had "organized its own Divinity school as a teaching ministry of the local church." Rather than get into a "protracted battle which would cause too much damage," the church left the PCA.11
The secessionist church's Geneva Divinity School joined the ICE in publishing many different newsletters covering a wide variety of topics. The church also formed an Association of Reformation Churches with a few like-minded churches and pastors on its rolls.
The Tyler church sought to "appreciably alter the thrust of the Christian Reconstruction movement. 12While Rushdoony emphasized Christian education as the primary means of bringing about Reconstruction, the scholars at Geneva stressed "the importance of the local sacramental body of the Church."
Therefore, they were, very much involved in ecclesiastical renewal, canon law, the liturgical movement, the paedocommunion issue, the reestablishment of tithing, and the like.13
In December, 1987, the Tyler church changed its name to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and joined the American Episcopal Church, a group which has broken off from the mainline Episcopalian denomination.
A few years after the Tyler secession, another theonomic church in the PCA became the focus of controversy. The Chalcedon church of Atlanta, Georgia, had prospered under its pastor, Joseph Morecraft. Its physical plant grew and it published its own monthly magazine, The Counsel of Chalcedon.
In the fall of 1982, though, a group withdrew, charging that the church was going beyond the Westminster Confession in requiring its officers to hold both to theonomy and to postmillennialism.14
The withdrawing group's complaint was not upheld by the North Georgia Presbytery, but Morecraft's church viewed the decision as a hollow victory, sensing that theonomy would never be popular in the PCA. It looked into affiliation with the OPC, but decided against it because the OPC had not itself resolved whether it would tolerate an emphasis on theonomy in the church.
It also considered alignment with the Tyler association, but Morecraft studied the issue of paedocommunion and concluded that it was unbiblical. Therefore, the Chalcedon church decided to secede from the PCA and form the "embryonic" Covenant Presbytery. Along with a number of daughter churches and other churches which have sought affiliation, the Covenant Presbytery has developed into a full-fledged denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the U.S. It even has a close affiliation with a new seminary, Whitefield, in Lakeland, Florida.
There are several dozen theonomic pastors in the PCA today and many others who are sympathetic to the movement. A number of them serve as contributing editors to Morecraft's publication, The Counsel of Chalcedon. Certain presbyteries, like Westminster in the Appalachian region, have greater concentrations of theonomists, while others, like the Gulf Coast Presbytery, have vigorously sought to exclude them. When able, many theonomists have sought positions on the judicial committees of the denomination.
When Bahnsen left Jackson, he became an OPC home missions pastor in Placentia, California. There he continues to preach and to write extensively, occasionally venturing out to lecture.
The OPC also has a dozen or so additional theonomic pastors. Theonomy has been discussed briefly at General Assembly, but it has not been formally studied at the denominational level. In 1983, the Northern California Presbytery sponsored a conference on theonomy, but little was solved by it.
Journey Magazine, edited by OPC pastor Richard Knodel of Lynchburg, Virginia, devoted an entire issue to theonomy (November-December, 1986) and has been very sympathetic to the movement. David Chilton, who has had a falling out with North, is presently serving as the stated supply of an OPC chapel in California. He has not yet been accepted by his presbytery because of reservations about his view of the sacraments. The OPC foreign mission board is also supplying personnel for a Reconstructionist work in Surinam.
Reformed Church in the U.S.
This small denomination from the German Reformed tradition first began to hear about theonomy ten years ago through Norman Jones, then editor of its monthly magazine, The Reformed Herald who placed excerpts from works by Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen. Bahnsen was asked to address the denomination's ministers' conference in 1978 at Dordt College.
The next year a couple of Bahnsen's former students sought entry into the denomination. Eventually, several theonomists did enter and a few years down the road, controversy ensued. The denomination appointed a committee to investigate theonomy in 1983. That committee presented its report in 1985, but the action taken did not satisfy the opponents of theonomy. In 1987, they made an effort to have theonomy declared out of accord with the Heidelberg Catechism. They were only marginally successful and the issue will probably be taken up again.
Reformed Churches of New Zealand
Theonomy was introduced into the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, a denomination primarily of Dutch immigrant stock, by Richard Flinn, another student of Bahnsen's at Reformed Seminary. Flinn returned to his homeland and served as a home missionary. In a short time, he began to contribute articles to the denomination's monthly magazine Faith in Focus. In about a year, he became its editor and the magazine started to reflect his theonomic convictions. Soon, an American classmate and fellow theonomist came to serve as a home missionary as well. Later, another American theonomist took over a pastorate in New Zealand.
This denomination has also appointed a committee to study theonomy. Most recently, Flinn has resigned from the denomination.
Even though Rushdoony contributed articles to The Torch and Trumpet over a considerable span of years, that relationship died out as he developed his own forum for spreading his views. His books continued to be reviewed, but they were not as enthusiastically endorsed as they once had been. A few West Coast CRC laymen continued to provide some financial support for his endeavors. E. L. Hebden Taylor, sociology professor for many years at Dordt College, while not entirely endorsing their views, did make a generous use of Rushdoony's and North's analyses. Recent years have witnessed some theonomic influence on the CRC and Gary Moes, editor of Chalcedon Report, is a Calvin College alumnus and a member of the CRC.
Charismatics et al.
While the focus of this article has been on theonomy's effect on some of the small Reformed denominations with which the CRC is in ecclesiastical fellowship, it would be the wrong impression to think that Reconstructionism's profoundest influence has been on them. Rather, independent Baptists, Catholics, and especially Charismatics are attracted to what Rushdoony calls, "God's plan for victory." Chalcedon Report goes out to over thirty countries around the world and organizations which foster Christian Reconstruction are in place in Australia, England, and the Caribbean.
It is very difficult to evaluate a movement which is constantly in flux, both ideologically and organizationally. There is a great deal of intellectual ferment within the theonomist camp and books and articles are being published at a rapid rate. Ideas are generated constantly and are being sent out like trial balloons. Each new work is a refinement on the last. To criticize an earlier work by a theonomic author is to run the risk of misrepresenting his present position.
These factors have helped to contribute to the reluctance on the part of many leaders and scholars within the Reformed community to closely examine or contend with the issue of theonomy. Certainly, some have been inhibited by their own traditionalism. Theonomy is outside of the consensus of Reformed thinking today, and therefore, few are inclined to seriously assess such a radical departure from the norm.
Undoubtedly, a primary fear of potential critics is that they will evoke a torrent of criticism. Many theonomist are, if anything, prolific letter-writers, quick to jump to their own defense or that of their leaders if they feel that they have been in any way maligned. Practically any one who has engaged in public treatment of the movement has been inundated by mail. Coupled with this, from time to time, have been threats of civil and ecclesiastical law suits.
Theonomy has much to commend it. It has challenged the Reformed community to take the Old Testament Mosaic law seriously. All too often, we have glibly said, "All scripture ... is profitable" (2 Timothy 3:16), without reading the books of the Law for practical insights into righteous living for today.
Theonomy seeks to propagate a Reformed world-and-life view. It recognizes that the Lordship of Jesus Christ must be proclaimed over every area of life – including politics, economics, and education. Joe Morecraft, theonomic pastor of the Chalcedon church in Atlanta, was the official, but ultimately unsuccessful, Republican candidate for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1986.
Theonomy has also correctly identified many of the social ills of modern society. It realizes that they are deeply ingrained in our secular, humanistic culture (and within our own selves) and that an equally radical remedy must be administered. Many theonomist have put their time and money into actively supporting Christian education, opposing abortion, and challenging government intrusion into church affairs.
Finally, many theonomists have challenged the Reformed churches to reevaluate their liturgical traditions. Should we partake of the Lord's Supper in our worship services more often? The issue of paedocommunion forces us to re-examine whether our covenant children should be encouraged to make a profession of faith at an earlier age. Blessings can come through these challenges.
Although there is a great deal which is attractive about theonomy to those who wish to be thoroughly Reformed, both in their theological and cultural outlooks, there are many attendant dangers. Foremost is the danger of drawing a straight line of continuity of application between Old Testament laws and New Testament situations. The theonomic emphasis on the "abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail" is liable to abuse by adherents who are less attuned to both the continuity and discontinuity between the two covenants.
Extracting general principles from the detailed Mosaic case laws is tricky business. Determining which level of generality is applicable to our modern culture demands adept hermeneutical skills. Many people have jumped on the theonomy bandwagon, believing that it offers simple solutions for societal problems. Closer scrutiny reveals that there is no biblical quick fix.
On a practical level, the greatest danger of theonomy is the censorious mindset which often accompanies it. It is difficult to determine whether the movement produces adherents who are highly critical of others or just attracts them. Whatever the case, time and again, people perceived as opponents of theonomy have been denounced with the most uncomplimentary labels attached to them. Christian brothers should not be treated so poorly.
Sometimes the opponents of theonomy have been at fault by over-generalizing. The inflammatory rhetoric of certain theonomists has been attributed to the whole lot of them. A better approach is one that recognizes the diversity within the movement and assesses people on an individual basis. An irenic or bridge-building approach may go a long way in modifying some theonomic extremism. Vern Poythress, a professor at Westminster Seminary, presents a good model to follow in his forthcoming book, tentatively entitled, Understanding the Law of Moses.
We must be on guard against mere traditionalism in our practice. The Word of God, not the word of man, is our ultimate criterion. Theonomy must be examined in the light of Scripture. Several theological critiques of theonomy have been written, but none are readily accessible at the present. Another forthcoming book, tentatively entitled, Theonomy: A Reformed Critique of the Movement, will hopefully help to fill that vacuum. Edited by William Barker and ordained CRC minister, Robert Godfrey, it will contain contributions from Westminster faculty members from both the Philadelphia and California campuses.
Tradition can be instructive while we anticipate these publications. Historically, Reformed scholars have operated with a tripartite division of the law in mind, dividing it into its moral, civil or judicial, and ceremonial aspects. Only the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, has been considered binding on the New Testament believer. Theonomy, while recognizing that the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ, contends that the division between the moral law and the explanatory judicial case laws is unbiblical. Theonomy presumes that the judicial laws are binding unless explicitly abrogated in the New Testament.
Calvin certainly operated with the three-fold division in mind. About the judicial laws, Calvin wrote,
The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd ... The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and then be everywhere enforced.(Institutes, IV. xx. 16)
Elsewhere he remarked,
There are some who deny that a commonwealth is rightly framed which neglects the law of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations. How perilous and seditious these views are ... for me it is enough to demonstrate that they are stupid and false.IV. xx. 14
Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, stated that,
The judicial laws have been so abrogated by the coming of Christ, that they no longer bind any to obedience, and they have not the appearance and force of laws in respect to the present time.Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 492
The Westminster divines wrote in their Confession of Faith that,
To them also, as a body politick, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now further than the general equity thereof may require.XIX. 4
Kuyper wrote in a series of articles in The Standard in May-June, 1874, that when;
our fathers called upon the state to suppress idolatry (Belgic Confession, Art. 36), they made a mistake to be protested. Government cannot enter the spiritual contest between truth and error.
Later he remarked that,
the carrying on of the theocratic idea in the history of the Western Church has been a great error. The situation in which the theocratic laws were given no longer exists.
Van Til, whose presuppositional apologetics most theonomists claim as their own, had this to say in a letter written on May 11, 1972 to Gregg Singer which is kept in the West minster Seminary archives:
I am frankly a little concerned about the political views of Mr. Rushdoony and Mr. North and particularly if I am correctly informed about some of the views Gary North has with respect to the application of Old Testament principles to our day. My only point is that I would hope and expect that they would not claim that such views are inherent in principles which I hold.
This brief survey of the origins and recent developments of the theonomy movement, along with this even more inadequate evaluation, should serve to whet the appetite of the curious reader. Theonomic literature can be ordered at many Christian bookstores and trial subscriptions to many of their newsletters are free. Some promising critiques of theonomy are forthcoming. Above all, search the Scriptures to see if these things are so (Acts 17:11).