27 November 2016

2016: Theonomy Revisited

Every once in a while I feel it necessary to check-in with the Old Guard Theonomists. There aren't that many of them left. While I have always disagreed with them I at least appreciated their integrity. The Theonomy of the 1980s and 1990s was open in its rejection of Classical Liberalism in the form of democracy, rights, individualism as well as its rejection of Libertarian impulses.

I say this while admitting there has always been a degree of schizophrenia within the Christian Right regarding Liberalism's values. They flow directly from the Enlightenment and largely represented a rejection of Christendom. American isolation allowed for a kind of Pollyanna synthesis of the ideas that was possible due to a social consensus rooted largely in ignorance of Liberalism's implications. Of course Classical Liberal thought which is quite contrary to the Reformed Theology of the Puritans and others did play a part in creating the American sensibility which has and remains hostile to Calvinism. It's Semi-Pelagian through and through.  

At the turn of the century in 2001, Theonomy's founder and patron saint RJ Rushdoony died and the movement fragmented, some figures and factions turning to a more Libertarian model, others downplaying their hostility to the US Constitution and instead engaging in a great deal of revisionism with regard to both their movement and US history. Others had already become focused on a Remnant mindset, building an army through child bearing and 'Christian' education as they understand it. This is the polar opposite of the Remnant motivations of some within the Two Kingdom orbit.

Some rejected the progress inherent in Classical Liberalism altogether and adopted wistful Romantic-style narratives about Agrarianism and the darkness that came with the Industrial Age. These are often wed to meta-narratives concerning Calvinism, US history and the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The movement has had a tremendous impact and though a lot of their political ideas and jurisprudence have not won the day, the general framework has, and more than anything by dispersing and disseminating Dominion Theology they have played a very important role in transforming American Evangelicalism. Even though Dispensational Premillennialism is still the default Eschatology, the majority of Evangelicals have embraced Dominionism and though such a union is actually theologically and ideologically schizophrenic they now understand the Christian life in Reconstructionist and Postmillennial terms.

Eschatology often decried as academic and unimportant is actually one of the most important doctrines in the New Testament. It's more than end-time schemes. Our expectations and understanding of the nature of the Kingdom determine how we live now. Eschatology isn't about speculation with regard to the future. It determines the nature of the Kingdom and how we are to live in light of it.

While Evangelicals are still arguing over Russia, Iran, China and which verses in Revelation refer to them, they are nevertheless living like Postmillennialists who believe it is the task of the Church to reign over society and control its institutions. This is the legacy of the Dominion Theology communicated through figures like Francis Schaeffer and with a slight variation, the Theonomic movement initiated by RJ Rushdoony.

There are still a few 'Old School' Theonomists about. Georgia's Joseph Morecraft certainly qualifies. While technically Theonomy is a position within the Presbyterian framework regarding an interpretation of the Westminster Confession's teaching on the Law, this is but one aspect of its larger system. The issues regarding the law got the most attention in the 1980s and 90s as the Theonomists called for the execution of blasphemers, homosexuals and disobedient children.

But the real heart of the system is Postmillennialism fueled by Dominionist theology. This is why that though Theonomy failed within the context of Presbyterian Confessionalism the larger Dominionist project has not only come to dominate those very same circles but has become an ecumenical driver incorporating almost the whole of the Evangelical and even Charismatic worlds. People aren't arguing over the specifics of Mosaic case law anymore but in general terms most Christians now embrace the concept of a Christian dominated and ruled society and by default will look to the Old Testament as the normative structure for New Testament nations. That's what Theonomy was really all about. It was trying to work out the details and the jurisprudential minutiae and fit them within the framework of Confessional Presbyterianism. Most Evangelicals are happy to ignore the details (and the Presbyterianism) and look at the big picture. They're focusing first on winning the culture and then they can turn to the myriad of particular questions and applications of Old Testament law.

While Postmillennialism has not been embraced, Dominionism more or less forces everyone into that mindset and certainly an embrace of the agenda. Theoretically Evangelicals are still talking about rebuilt Temples and revived Roman Empires, but practically speaking they have become Postmillennialists committed to the transformation of society and the reification and restoration of Christendom.


Listening to this Morecraft sermon I was struck by the same old addled argumentation filled with extra-Biblical speculations and contradictions. Morecraft's categories are faulty from the start and so his 'sermon' (in reality a political lecture) is all but canceled out.

His Biblical exegesis is flawed and distorted and as usual completely divorced from the context. Their treatment of Romans 13 isn't just wrong, it's ridiculous and anachronistic. Paul wasn't outlining limited government functions. Theonomy has never grasped Redemptive-History and cannot understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. This most crucial of questions is in fact so misunderstood by them that the whole of their theology, even the impulses that drive it are in error. As has been said before, at the end of the day Theonomy has misread the Bible on a massive scale. They quite literally have not understood its message.

The same old tired and absurd arguments are put forth. John Calvin becomes the progenitor of modern Western Civilisation, completely ignoring the role of the Enlightenment not to mention its largely negative relationship to Reformation thought. The American Revolution is completely revised and cast in light of the Reformation while Locke, Montesquieu and the role of autonomous reason are completely ignored.

Then we get down to the real meat... what's the Christian life about? What's our real concern? Well, according to Morecraft we're back to criticising fiat currency, defending the gold standard, myths about the United States being under Sharia law, and even a favourable mention of that old Bircher icon congressman Larry McDonald. A few years after his death in 1983, Morecraft tried to run for his congressional seat but thankfully failed.

The contradictions are rampant and absurd, and at times dangerous. While Morecraft doesn't openly advocate rebellion, the impulse is always there. At the end of the day Christians are only to obey the laws that Theonomy deems as legitimate. This is a dog-whistle call to insurgency and ultimately revolution. They even have a made-up doctrine to go with it. The gun culture that runs rampant in those circles is also a cause for concern.

Of course (according to Morecraft) under a Theonomic state we would have no thought police! Morecraft is appalled by the measures taken by the US government since 9/11. No thought police? Is he serious? Is he that blind or that sinister? And yet under a Theonomic administration he freely admits we would laws against sacrilege and blasphemy. How does one enforce such laws apart from thought police and the elimination of free speech?

This is the irony of the Christian Right. While on the one had they set themselves up as ├╝ber-patriots they are in fact very opposed to the US Constitution and the Classical Liberal values it espouses. That's fine, just admit it. And I will give them this, the Theonomists alone are pretty open about their rejection of the Constitution. They've always been pretty clear that their understanding of patriotism would involve an immediate revision and recasting of the Constitution. Some might call that revolutionary, even treacherous but they know better. They are the 'real' Americans.

Rushdoony never shied away from this commitment to changing the Constitution and essentially decimating centuries of jurisprudence...even while somehow praising and defending the American Revolution and the principles which founded the nation. While I praise their honesty, in truth even while denouncing the Constitution they were (and are) still engaged in self-deception (if not delusion) on a massive scale. They love America and yet actually hate it. But I'm afraid that doesn't market very well, does it?

On Biblical grounds, I too reject the Classical Liberalism of the Founding as well as the Revolution, let alone the essential premises of the Constitution. That said, I utterly reject Theonomy as a dangerous heresy that is completely anti-Scripture. But rather than engage in political subversion I argue our task is to live as exilic pilgrims bearing witness and suffering the consequences... flight or fire. Theonomy advocates violence, not openly of course but that's what it leads to. They've started the fire and even though the arsonists are fading away, the fire is lit, is now burning and they who initiated it bear some responsibility.

There's more we could say regarding the Theonomist appropriation of Cornelius Van Til's thought and (despite their critiques of Thomism) the Neo-Scholasticism they actually represent. When Theonomy was further sundered by the Federal Vision controversies, Morecraft's rationalism was put on display. He represented the worst of the Theonomic movement falling into the same old Hyper-Calvinistic (and essentially Baptistic) categories which have dominated Reformed theology since the 19th century. It makes sense as his heroes of the Southern Zion, figures like Thornwell and Dabney were cut from the same cloth.

I must say in looking up Morecraft, who I had not considered in some time, I was particularly disgusted with his manipulation of Presbyterian polity. These men are amazing. How many Presbyterians have I battled with over polity? How often have I been castigated by them over issues of membership and a failure to submit to their canon law and extra-scriptural bureaucracy? But then when Morecraft comes into conflict with the machine, he just walks away, ripping congregations apart in the process and starts a new church, joining with a schismatic (and by Presbyterian standards) renegade presbytery. The rules they'll beat you over the head with don't seem to apply to them. I feel quite safe in asserting that many of the leaders within American Presbyterianism display sociopathic behaviour.

And yet Morecraft is also a creature of great pride. I'll never forget what I saw back in 1998 at a conference in South Carolina. Morecraft (by all measures a large man) quite literally swaggered into the hall accompanied by a crew of toadies that could not hide the haughtiness and disdain on their faces. Sitting right behind him I found  myself enjoying his displays of frustration and exasperation and then finally his confrontation with one of the speakers over the 'Spirituality of the Southern Presbyterian Church'. Morecraft didn't like the message because it conflicted with his own Southern variety of Theonomy. Pardon this final and quite subjective judgment on my part, but I have to say whenever I've encountered these folks it must be said that in addition to their grave theological error there is a spirit about them that leaves one very troubled. Something isn't quite right.

In conclusion I must say that as 2016 fades away, Theonomy-proper has all but died. Rushdoony no longer captivates the American reader. Enough time has passed for researchers to reveal something of what Rushdoony really was and represented and frankly his twisted views are not those most are willing to embrace.

Theonomy has been reduced to a sort of lame caricature of itself, lacking the fervour it once displayed. Pride and faction have decimated its ranks. And yet like a virus that propagates and dies, the mutations it has spawned live on and continue to make shipwreck of American Christianity.