The theonomic and reconstruction movements pop up in the oddest places. I recall a PBS documentary in 1988 breathlessly hosted by Bill Moyers warning America about the dangers posed by the movements. Now, in the Fall 2012 issue of the alumni magazine of University of California Berkeley has an essay on R. J. Rushdoony (1916–2001) (HT: Aquila Report).
Rushdoony is one of the more important figures in the history of the conservative Reformed world in the 20th century. His influence is undeniable and widespread. Many outside of the Reformed world have been influenced by his ideas, theories, and vision without realizing it. The son of a Presbyterian minister. Rushdoony became committed to cultural transformation in the 1950s. Most, but not all, of the most notable leaders of the movement, including theologian Greg L. Bahnsen (1948–1995), economist Gary North (Rushdoony’s son-in-law), theologian James Jordan, pastor and politician Joseph Morecraft, author Gary DeMar, author Andrew Sandlin and author Kenneth Gentry have been closely associated with Rushdoony at some point.
The most foundational publications of the movement are Rushdoony’s three volume Institutes of Biblical Law. Volume one (1973) is an exposition of the Ten Commandments and a theological exposition of the promise, role, and function in Scripture and Western Society. Volume two (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982) is a collection of one hundred-sixty short essays with 11 appendices focusing on ethics.*
People have occasionally suggested to me that “Theonomy is dead isn’t it?” I have been tempted to think so but no, it isn’t dead and it isn’t going to die because it offers a powerful. compelling vision for the future and in America such a vision of the future will always have adherents. America is all about the future. Barack Obama was elected, at least in part, on the basis of an eschatology (a vision of the future).
When he said,
…generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs for the jobless. This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal. This was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment — this was the time — when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals.
he was peddling a sort of golden-age, utopian, eschatology. Rushdoony’s vision for the future is nothing if not an eschatology of a future golden-age of society reconstructed along theonomic lines.
The federal vision movement is a theological and ecclesiastical expression of theonomic and reconstruction movements inspired by Rushdoony and it seems unlikely that it is going away any time soon.
There are some errors in the essay by Chris Smith. These things happen when one is writing about strangers. Distinctions which seem arcane to an outside are quite important to those of us who live in the world being described. Smith does goes to central casting for his first villain: “Harking back to John Calvin’s attempt to create a theocracy in 16th-century Geneva….” As all Calvin scholars know such claims are misleading at best. The author also gets the story wrong regarding William F. Buckley’s rejection of the John Birch Society. Buckley did not reject the Birchers simply because they were bad PR for conservatives but because the Birchers weren’t actually conservative (and, according to D. G. Hart, neither are the deconstructionists and theonomists). A third error is his description of Harold Camping as a premillennialist. Camping was nothing of the sort. He was an ardent amillennialist but Smith can be forgiven for being confused since Camping’s goofy antics look more like the sort of thing one associates with modern premillennialism than with amillennialism.
The piece is also a little disappointing in that its chief function seems to be to congratulate the presumedly enlightened readers of the alumni magazine, like the Pharisee and the Publican, “O’ Lord I thank thee that I am not a conservative or reconstructionist.” The piece would have been greatly aided by some reflection on what reconstructionist movement says about the nature of American religion and politics and even to see the fairly obvious connection with the current administration’s “reconstructist” (albeit of a different sort) rhetoric.
Nevertheless, Smith’s is a useful introduction to the movement. Interested readers will want to read the sources for themselves. I’m grateful for his mention of a new PhD diss. by Michael McVicar. I’ve ordered it via Inter-Library Loan.
This essay is also a good reminder that though it might seem that the conservative (which is an intentionally broader category than “confessional”) Reformed folk do not live in a bubble. The theonomy and reconstruction movements have long been harbored among us and they function as entry points for evangelicals and fundamentalists into the conservative Reformed world but they do not well represent our theology, piety, and practice or certainly not the best approach to relating Christ and culture.
*Some of the material for this post is taken from my entry s.v. “Reconstructionism” in the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics.