Arguably Reformed theology has never been more popular among evangelicals than it is right now. There are multiple large parachurch movements that extol the virtues of Reformed theology in a way that was unknown thirty years ago. It has never been easier for fundamentalists and evangelicals to discover the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. This is a very good thing and much to be encouraged.
Nevertheless, there are challenges to be faced. On the receiving side it is tempting for the Presbyterian and Reformed (hereafter P&R) churches to downplay the differences between modern (post-18th century) evangelical theology, piety, and practice and the Reformed confession. The same is true with fundamentalism, which I treat here as a distinct phenomenon. The picture becomes even fuzzier when we consider the several ways in which the contemporary P&R churches have been influenced both by modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice (as distinct from the Reformed confession) and by fundamentalism. So, it is possible, in some places, for evangelicals and fundamentalists to enter a Reformed congregation and not realize that they have migrated from one village to another.
I am not advocating for border walls but but this is an argument for making some distinctions. As I argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession, the P&R churches need to get back to their roots, to recover their own theology, piety, and practice. We have something distinct and eminently valuable to share with evangelical and fundamentalist pilgrims coming to Geneva, as it were.
When we lived in Carol Stream, a suburb of Chicago, we had to drive frequently on toll roads. Every so often we had to stop (or least slow down) and toss some coins into the toll booth, ostensibly to pay for road maintenance. My case here is that too often the pilgrims streaming toward Geneva too often find themselves passing through theological and practical toll-booths. One of those is what I am calling, for the purposes of this article, TheoRecon, or theonomy and reconstructionism.
Let us define our terms.
This is a very complicated term indeed. There is a great body of literature devoted to defining this word. In the 16th and 17th centuries the word denoted those who identified with the magisterial (e.g., Luther, Calvin) Reformation. In the 18th century, however, there began to arise a distinct thing, which was partly the child of the Pietists, a movement that arose partly in reaction to perceived nominalism in European state-churches and partly the result of the concern for godliness among the English Reformed (also in a state-church context). In the 18th century, evangelical religion came to be increasingly dominated by what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE), the desire for an unmediated experience of the risen Christ. This took the form of a series of revivals.
The movement morphed, however, so that in the 19th and 20th centuries, to borrow a phrase from Iain Murray, revival became revivalism. As it turns out, however, it is more difficult to distinguish the two than it was thought earlier. For our purposes, evangelical denotes a movement (mostly) among Protestants, mostly dominated in the 19th and 20th centuries by a Baptistic view of the church and sacraments and by the Pietistic (to be distinguished from piety) desire for an unmediated experience of the risen Christ. So that today it is virtually impossible to say what an evangelical must believe. The only thing that really unites the movement is a common experience that transcends confessional and theological boundaries.
This term describes those who are on what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC), the desire for certainty on questions where there has traditionally, in the confessional Protestant churches (e.g., the Lutheran and Reformed) been liberty.
In the early 20th century the Fundamentalists were those defending the The Fundamentals of the faith and published a series of volumes by that name. At least some of the contributors to those volumes would not be considered fundamentalists today, in the sense in which I am using the term here.
The movement morphed and became less anchored to the Protestant confessions and more oriented around personalities (a trait shared by evangelical theology piety, and practice in this period), and bounded by convictions about eschatology (e.g., premillennialism), alcohol (abstinence), and the like.
The confessional Protestants (e.g., J. Gresham Machen) in the period made common cause with the evangelicals and the fundamentalists in defense of the truthfulness (infallibility, inerrancy) of Scripture and the truth of the essentials of the Christian faith but it was an uneasy alliance that largely broke up after Machen’s death in 1937.
This is a vital definition since the word is often used casually both by adherents of theonomy and by some critics. There are two senses, In the broad sense, theonomy asserts that God and his revelation of his moral will in Scripture has supreme moral authority over all creatures. In this sense all Christians are theonomists but of course this is not the sense that is controversial. The narrow sense of the word denotes the theory of the “abiding validity” of the Old Testament (Mosaic) judicial laws “in exhaustive detail.” The quoted phrases are the language of Greg Bahnsen, in Theonomy in Christian Ethics. This claim is highly controversial and this is the movement considered here.
This movement is somewhat distinct from theonomy but it overlaps considerably. All theonomists may not be Reconstructionists but all Reconstructionists are theonomists. This movement anticipates a future collapse of the West and a rising out of the ashes of the post-Christian West of a new Christendom, a Christianized society in which theonomy will be the norm. It is an eschatology (to be discussed below), i.e., a vision of the future, an ethic, and even a socio-economic program.
These two movements, theonomy and reconstructionism, overlap sufficiently that hereafter I will speak of the TheoRecon movement as one thing.
Distinct from the evangelical (QIRE), fundamentalist (QIRC), and the TheoRecon movement, is confessional Protestantism. My particular interest here is the Reformed confessional Christianity. The Reformed confession has its own theology, piety, and practice (including ethics), that distinguish it from the other three movements. It is embodied in the Reformed confessions, and especially in what I call the six forms of unity: the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort (1619), the Westminster Standards (1640s). My thesis is that the TheoRecon movement is contrary to the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed confession.
From where does the TheoRecon movement arise? Its earliest exponent was Rousas Rushdoony (d. 2001), who was raised in the Presbyterian mainline (what we now know as the PCUSA) and educated conventionally (Cal Berkeley) but who became enamored of the Reformed apologist Cornelius Van Til (d. 1987) and who, like a lot of other religious conservatives in the mainline, imbibed some fundamentalism, though it would not be quite accurate to call him a fundamentalist, Rushdoony pioneered a theological, ethical, and social project that would be amenable to fundamentalism, which the fundamentalists could understand and which, in its own way, did not require them to travel far intellectually to join it.
Over time the movement gained other adherents and contributors, the most notable of which was Greg Bahnsen (d. 1995), who pioneered the theonomic aspect of TheoRecon in his 1977 book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics.
TheoRecon is powered by two things, without which it would not be. The first and most essential is its eschatology. Like Marxism, the eschatological vision behind TheoRecon is intoxicating because it promises a glorious future on the earth. Like Marxism, the eschatological vision of TheoRecon is this-worldly. It anticipates a transformation of this world, a future in which the globe is Christianized, in which Christians are no longer marginal or martyred bu powerful and influential. It is particularly enticing to Millennials, who, like the generation after WWI, are passionate about “making a difference” in the here and now.
It is also attractive to evangelicals and fundamentalists who already have a highly-realized eschatology. Their ecclesiology is already driven by a highly-realized eschatology. In the Baptistic view of the church, one cannot really participate in the church until one already has what the church offers (new life). It is a short step to transfer that highly-realized eschatology to civil life.
The essence of the QIRC is to know with certainty exactly what God thinks about x. The TheoRecon movement scratches this itch. They have an economist (e.g., Gary North). They have an ethic (Bahnsen). They have a law book, The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973–1999), which functions like a Talmud for the TheoRecon movement, an exhaustive application of the Mosaic judicial laws to contemporary society. This comprehensive program substitutes for the old fundamentalist ethic (no drinking, no dancing, no cards, no cinema etc) with the same sort of certainty. The TheoRecon movement has different rules (they drink, they dance, they write film reviews) but they have detailed guidance about male-female relations (they are typically Patriarchal), child rearing, education, economics, politics, etc.
The TheoRecon movement is attractive to fundamentalists in the way Romanism is attractive to converts. It offers a place to put implicit faith. This is distinct from explicit faith wherein the believer knows what he believes and why. Implicit faith is trust that someone, somewhere knows the answer. Implicit faith trusts that some authority knows the answer even if the believer does not himself know what it is or why it is true.
The fundamentalist placed implicit faith in a leader, e.g., Jack Hyles or Bob Jones in a way not dissimilar to the Romanist trust in the papacy or the magisterium. How many Romanists have actually read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994)? It is a massive document. It dwarfs even the largest Reformed catechisms (e.g., Calvin’s Geneva Catechism). How many laity attracted to the TheoRecon movement have actually read Bahnsen, North, or Rushdoony? They do trust their TheoRecon leaders however. The TheoRecon movement offers a similar sort of comfort that a TheoRecon authority knows the answer and more importantly is defending them from the an external threat (e.g., secularism). This is the attraction of Greg Bahnsen to laity who could not begin to explain the transcendental argument or presuppositionalism. It is the attraction of Doug Wilson, whom many TheoRecon laity know principally as the guy who debated that atheist Christopher Hitchens. They know he has a private school system, a home-school curriculum. They are mostly unaware of his controversial pastoral practice or even his Federal Vision doctrine of salvation through (baptismal) grace and cooperation with grace. The need for an authority in which to place implicit faith explains why TheoRecon laity are so resistant to evidence that challenges TheoRecon authorities.
In distinction, in confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice, believers place their implicit faith in God’s Word and confess it with the churches in the Reformed confessions. Where they speak we are united. Where they are silent, we are free. This is the classical Reformed doctrine of Christian liberty.
Theocracy Was Not Theonomy
One of the attractions of TheoRecon is that it offers an alternative to the Modern (and now post-Modern) collapse of the West. People are understandably nervous. Many of the things about which we were warned in the 1960s and 70s are coming true before our eyes. Drag Queens are recruiting children for the LGBTQ ethos/religion right before our eyes, in our (publicly-funded) schools and libraries with the help of (publicly-funded) teachers and librarians. Parents seem to be offering their children to Moloch right before us. The toll of abortion on demand staggers one. More than 60 million human beings have been murdered since Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton (1973). It is easy to see how a busy parent could say, “Someone needs to do something!”
Here comes the TheoRecon movement with a story about the past that seems to answer the crisis. There was a time, they suggest, when the Christians were in charge (which is true), when the state enforced religious orthodoxy (which is true), when the judicial laws were enforced by the civil magistrate. This last part is not true. They appeal not only to the 1640s in the British Isles but to the Puritan experiment in the New World as evidences for their claim.
There is enough truth in their claims to be convincing, if one does not look too closely at the details. Let us define more terms. By theocracy I mean one the view that seeks state enforcement of religious orthodoxy. From the 7th century forward virtually every state in the East and in the West was theocratic. Indeed, the pagans did not need the Christians to show them how to do it. The Romans enforced their (pagan) state-religion at the point of the sword (or in the mouth of the lion). With the example of Old Testament Israel and the cultural influence of pre-Christian Rome (and virtually every other culture before), by the early medieval period, the state-enforcement of Christianity was nearly universal.
It was so universal that the Protestant Reformers simply assumed it without question. Even some Anabaptists, when it was to their advantage, used the sword to enforce their version of religious orthodoxy. Through much of the 16th and 17th centuries Europe and the British Isles were wracked with religious wars, each state seeking to impose its version of orthodoxy upon someone. The Dutch fought the Spanish for eighty years. The Romanists and the Protestants fought a Thirty-Years war across Europe with disastrous consequences in many places.
The religious pluralism that Americans have experienced since 1789 is a novelty in world history. It is a breath-taking experiment but it is not the natural state of humans. It creates unresolved tensions. The ambiguities inherent in state-enforced religious pluralism abound. Fundamentalists chafe at the tension and Pietist-influenced evangelicals (mostly) ignore it. The TheoRecons want to resolve it in a radical way. They want to return to the status quo ante 1789.
To that they want to add to the mix, theonomy, which is a relative novelty in the history of Christian theology. The traditional Christian view, with roots in the fathers and expressed explicitly in the medieval and Protestant theologians (and confessions) is that are there aspects to the Old Testament law: moral, judicial/civil, and ceremonial. Christians have always agreed that of those three, only the moral law (summarized in the Ten Commandments and expressed by our Lord in Matthew 22:37–40 as “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as your self”) is perpetually and universally binding.
The traditional Christian view, inherited and taught by the Protestant Reformers is that the moral law is the natural law. Thus, the Westminster Divines confessed,
2. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.
3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
4. To them also, as a body politic, 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.
5. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation (Westminster Confession 19.2–5).
TheoRecon, however, rejects the threefold distinction confessed by the Reformed so that Bahnsen speaks of the “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail.” They do not, to my knowledge, seek the re-institution of the ceremonies and the abiding validity of the moral law is not in question. Thus, what is in question is the status of the Mosaic judicial laws.
The tension between TheoRecon and the Reformed Confession, on this point, is irreconcilable.
The Confessional Alternative
According to the P&R churches, the judicial laws have expired. They are no longer in force. There was a built-in sunset provision in the Mosaic system generally. Hebrews 7:11–14 says:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests (ESV).
What is fascinating about this argument by the pastor to the Jewish Christians, who were tempted to go back to abandon Christ and to go back to the Mosaic system, is that he posits a sort of inverted triangle in which the entire Mosaic system rests on the priesthood. When the priesthood changed, the entire system, including the Mosaic law, changed. It expired. The whole system pointed to Christ. It worked for Christ, As he says in 3:5, “Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later” but “Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (v.6; ESV).
The moral law is not Mosaic but the judicial and ceremonial laws were. They were never intended for any other nation than Old Testament Israel. They are done. What is left of them is what the old Reformed theologians called “general equity” or natural law. This is a concept that TheoRecons both (typically) misunderstand and reject but it is the Reformed alternative to TheoRecon. Here are some typical, classical Reformed definitions of “general equity:”
I. As the ceremonial law was concerned with God, the political was concerned with the neighbor.
II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.
III. In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths (Johannes Wollebius, Compendium theologiae christianae, 14.6 in Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John W. Beardslee III (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 84).
William Perkins, a major influence upon the Westminster Divines, explained:
But touching other nations and specially Christian Commonwealths in these days, the case is otherwise. Some are of the opinion that the whole judicial law is wholly abolished and some again run to the other extreme, holding that the judicial laws bind Christians as straightly as the Jews but no doubt they are both are wide and the safest course is the keep to the mean between both. Therefore the judicial laws of Moses according to the substance and scope thereof must distinguished in which respect they are of two sorts: Some of them are laws of particular equity and some of common equity. Laws of particular equity and condition of the Jews’ Commonwealth and to the circumstances thereof, time, place, persons, things, [and] actions. Of this kind was the law that the brother should raise up seed of his brother and many such like and none of them bind us because they were framed and tempered to a particular people.
Judicials of common equity are such as are made according to the law or instinct of nature common to all men and these in respect of their substance bind the consciences not only of the Jews but also of the Gentiles for they were not given to the Jews as they were Jews, that is, a people received into the covenant above all other nations, brought from Egypt to the Land of Canaan, of whom the Messiah according to the flesh was to come; but they were given to them as they were mortal men subject to the order and laws of nature as other nations are. Again, judicial laws so far as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral and therefore binding in conscience as the moral law (William Perkins, A Discourse on Cases of Conscience in The Whole Works (London, 1631), 1.520 [spelling modernized]
General equity does not mean what Rushdoony, Bahnsen, et al say it means. It means, whatever is universal in the Mosaic law, whatever is conformable to natural law, whatever is self-evident to rational people, that is the general equity. Will we all always agree as to what the general equity is? No. There is going to be uncertainty and disagreement. E.g., it is evident from nature and reason that murders can only pay for their crimes with their own lives. Thus, the Apostle Paul says, in Romans 13:4 that the civil magistrate “does not bear the sword in vain.” Roman law gave the authority to the magistrate to put criminals to death. Paul endorsed that practice even though it would cost him his life. He knew that even the degenerate Caesar was appointed by God and that pagan officials under him knew enough about justice to execute the death penalty. Yet, we may debate and disagree about how it should be applied.
Paul did not call for the execution of capital punishment upon rebellious teens or upon adulterers. Indeed, he did not give any advice at all to the civil magistrate. He certainly did not call for the re-institution of the Mosaic civil laws.
The USA Is Not Israel
He did not because Paul understood the movement of redemptive history, which is an area not well understood by the TheoRecon movement. Their theorists simply disagree with the Reformed confession on this point. National Israel was a unique entity never to be repeated. It is understandable why the TheoRecons might not see this clearly since the history of Christianity is replete with confusion about this. Though the medieval and Protestant theologians agreed in theory that Israel was unique—they called them Judaizers who tried to bring back explicitly the types and shadows—in practice they were inconsistent.
Arguably the medieval church-state complex rebuilt not only Old Testament worship (complete with a sacrificial system) but also the Old Testament church-state complex. The Reformed, e.g., Theodore Beza, De iure magistratuum could, in the same volume, teach exactly what the Westminster Divines confessed about the expiration of the OT judicial and in the next breath write about the French king as though he were King David. This is confused and confusing.
Let us be perfectly clear. No post-canonical magistrate is King David. No post-canonical state is God’s national people. There are no national covenants after Israel. Christ exercises has dominion over all things in two distinct spheres: generally by his providence and specially (savingly) over and through his visible church. In short, we are all just pilgrims serving Christ under a twofold government (Calvin).
TheoRecon is attractive to pilgrims out of fundamentalism and perhaps to evangelicals looking for an alternative to chaos and subjectivism and emotionalism but there are serious problems with TheoRecon. This essay, of course, has only sketched them but I hope that it has at least suggested what some of the problems are.
I also hope that it gives pause to those who are attracted to or perhaps passing through the TheoRecon toll-booth. There is another way. There is a confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice that is distinct from the TheoRecon movement. Yes, there are points of overlap as the TheoRecon identifies with aspects of the P&R doctrine and practice but there are real areas of difference.
It is not necessary to pay this toll. You may drive around this toll-booth and I hope you will. Below are more resources to help you think through these issues and to help you explore the Reformed confession on its own terms and not as it is mediated by the TheoRecon movement.
- Resources For Those Discovering The Reformed Confession
- Pilgrims (And Their Hosts)
- The Reformed Confessions
- Resources On Theonomy And Reconstructionism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession