You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you (Matt 5:38–42; ESV).
In Priorities and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Matthew (Harrisonburg, VA: Dominion Educational Ministries, Inc., 2000), the theonomic-Reconstructionist writer Gary North (1942–2022) titles his exposition of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, “Bribing Tyrants.” He wrote, “the theocentric issue here is the judgment of God on a rebellious nation.”1
The theme of North’s commentary is literally on its face: dominion, and the principal instrument of dominion is law. Indeed, the legal tone of his commentary is palpable. According to North, the goal of the Christian, in this life, in this world, before Christ returns is “dominion.” That is the lens through which he interpreted the whole of Scripture.
According to North, “God brings tyrants to power in order to use them as rods of iron in history.” They are a judgment on “injustice in a covenanted nation.”2 He quotes Isaiah 10:1–6 from which he concludes, “[t]hese laws require the covenant-keeper to subordinate himself meekly to covenant-breakers. The proper response to injustice, Jesus said here, is acceptance.”3
Jesus, he argued, “was speaking to a captive people.” He did not “call his listeners to revolt,” but to what he calls, “an open conspiracy” of “visible righteousness.”4 Our passage, he wrote, is not “a rejection of the Lex Talionis” (the law of retribution; e.g., Ex 21:24).5 Matthew 5:17–19 makes that impossible.6
North believes God not only punished Israel for her disobedience, but also punishes other nations similarly. “It was God’s judgment on His people that they had been forced to live under a series of legal system not based on biblical law. Such a civil condition is a mark of God’s negative sanctions against a nation. Jesus told them to put up with tyranny for the time being. He told them to go the extra mile.”7
Because the context is tyranny brought on by national covenant breaking, the requirement to give one’s tunic must, according to North, be interpreted as an “implicit bribe.”8 He writes, “When you are confronted with a man who has the power to take what he wants from you, offer it in advance. Honor this power by offering something extra; more than he deserves…. To gain peace is a way to gain time. Time is what righteous men need to begin to construct an alternative to tyranny.” He does mention grace briefly, writing: “His people are to extend grace to others, just as God extended grace to them. Their outward subordination to authority—extending more to tyrants than they deserve—is part of a general program of grace.”9
Unexpected: Theonomic Postmodernism
Regular Heidelcast listeners will know that I have done a series of episodes on both postmillennialism and theonomy. As I write, we are in the midst of a series taken from Bob Godfrey’s chapter on Calvin’s rejection of theonomy. Prior to that, however, I serialized parts of John Muether’s excellent chapter on the attraction of theonomy c. 1990. Both of these essays were published in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990). Muether’s chapter is valuable for several reasons. First, it was remarkably timely—the world he described in 1990 sounds a lot like the world in which we live now. Second, he showed that for all the rhetoric from the theonomists about how they want to get back to the good old days (as they anticipate the future earthly golden age before Christ returns), the TheoRecon (theonomic reconstructionist) movement is indebted to Modernity and especially to American evangelicalism in a variety of ways.
Thus, we should be perhaps be surprised by the Modernity or, more accurately, the postmodernity of Gary North’s Economic commentary on the gospel of Matthew. The very idea of an “economic commentary” on Matthew presupposes that either Matthew intended us read his gospel this way or that it matters not what the author Matthew intended because the reader is sovereign over the text. It would be a tour de force to show that the Holy Spirit intended Matthew to be interpreted to teach us economics. This is hardly evident from the text as we have it.
North has done to Matthew the very thing for which we rightly criticize the Medievals of doing to texts: looking for a sense in it (via the Quadriga) that the author(s) did not obviously intend. Why did Jesus sit in a boat in Luke 5:1–8? Hillary said that he did so because the boat symbolizes the church. This is the beauty of quadrigal hermeneutics: if the literal sense is not sufficiently interesting or useful, we can turn to one or more of the figurative senses—the doctrinal (allegorical), the moral (tropological), or the eschatological (anagogical) sense of the text. This puts the reader/interpreter firmly in charge of the text. Of course, for the Synoptics, the reason that Jesus sat in a boat was because of the size of the crowd, but that reading did not preach as well because it draws us to the objective accomplishment of redemption rather than to the subjective aspects. Preachers have always favored the subjective over the objective because the former is much easier to preach than the latter.
To be sure, as I always tell my students, there is nothing wrong with asking what a passage teach us (if anything) about faith, hope, and love. It is a problem, however, when we know a priori that the passage must speak to one or more of the figurative senses or that we are authorized, as Gregory I did in his Commentary on Job, to explore the moral sense of an entire book. Who authorized us to turn Matthew into an economics textbook? This is a sort of subjectivism of which the French Deconstructionists would be proud.
Two Eschatologies, Two Paradigms
There is, however, something even more fundamentally askew here than an unexpected postmodern turn. In his 1987 critique of Cornelius Van Til’s doctrine of common grace, which North rejected, he praised Van Til for plainly teaching what North regarded as an eschatology of defeat. This, he wrote, is what Amillennialism is. His own (reconstructionist-Postmillennial) eschatology, however, he wrote, is an eschatology of victory in this world before Christ returns.
I submit that, however instructive North’s reading of Matthew is for helping us to understand the Reconstructionist eschatology and ethic, it tells us virtually nothing about what Jesus said to the church in the Sermon on the Mount or about what God the Spirit was saying through Matthew or what Matthew as a human author of Scripture intended to say.
The fundamental paradigm under which North worked was a legal paradigm. Theonomy (i.e., the imposition of the Mosaic judicial laws upon the post-canonical state or by the state upon the people) is nothing if not a legal paradigm. According to North, there is no common grace and we are just biding our time until the collapse comes and after that the Reconstruction of civilization and the postmillennial earthly golden age before Christ’s return.
North mentions evangelism and grace but the purpose of the commentary is to prepare soldiers for (more or less literal) war and future earthly conquest. The Kingdom of God is not essentially a redemptive sphere, where the grace of God comes to helpless sinners until Jesus comes, but the story of a captive people waiting to defeat their captors and to parade them in the streets.
It is almost as if the New Testament did not actually happen. For North, we are, wherever we are, still national Israel, in exile or in bondage, waiting to reconquer Canaan. Like the Dispensationalists, North wants an earthly glory age. Where the Dispensationalists want a literal millennium, a literal temple, and a literal priesthood, North wants a physical conquest during a figurative millennium (of thousands of years), an earthly golden age until Jesus returns.
An Amilllennial reading of the Sermon on the Mount comes out rather differently. We will consider it next time. The link will be live when the installment is published.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. This volume is available online. I do not see a record for it in WorldCat as a printed volume.
2. Ibid., 87.
3. Ibid., 88.
4. Ibid., 89–90.
5. Ibid., 90.
6. Ibid., 90–91.
7. Ibid., 91.
8. Ibid., 93.
9. Ibid., 98.
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Just for an interesting connection (I had to look up this quadrigal thing), the first thing to come up on the googlie was Leithart defending the quadrigal hermeneutic. https://theopolisinstitute.com/rehabilitating-the-quadriga/