Critiquing a Reconstructionist Critic

Several years ago Dr. J. Ligon Duncan published a paper titled ‘The Intellectual and Sociological Origins of the Christian Reconstructionist movement.’ Recently somebody sent me this paper with the purpose of challenging Reconstructionist thinking. While, I do not consider myself a gung ho Reconstructionist, I must admit that I have certain sympathies for some of their thinking. As such, I have taken it upon myself to provide a brief critique of Dr. Duncan’s critique of Christian Reconstructionism.

I should say immediately that I found very little to be critical of in terms of Dr. Duncan’s summarization of this Biblical movement. It is only when Dr. Duncan begins to critique the movement that I have some difficulties.

First Dr. Duncan mentions a number of terms that have an inherent negative connotation and although he does define what he means by those terms one is left with more of the negative connotations then the definition that he gives.

For example Dr. Duncan can write,

Christian Reconstructionism is theoretically a positivist, fundamentalist, Calvinist response to the moral political forces unleashed by modernity…

Now nobody wants to be known as positivist or fundamentalist and so by using those terms Dr. Duncan subtly prejudices the conversation even though he goes on to give some (questionable) definitions to those terms.

Now as I have read Dr. Duncan in other places I think he would define himself as both Calvinist and Fundamentalist given the way he defines those terms in this paper. His major problem seems to be with the putatively positivist approach to Reconstructionism. First, it should be said that Reconstructionists don’t consider themselves to have a positivist approach to the law insisting instead that their approach is merely a Biblical approach. We must observe that many Calvinists through the centuries have objected to the items that Dr. Duncan notes Reconstructionism objects to in what he calls their positivist view of the Law. Dr. Duncan fails to note that Calvinists have lodged complaint with social contract theory at least since the time of Dabney and opposition to Natural law theories has found opposition in recent decades due to the insistence that Natural law is influenced by Aristotelian / Thomistic categories that are inherently un-natural to consistently Reformed ways of thinking.

The issue of prejudicing the debate by the choice of adjectival descriptors is seen again on page 3 where Dr. Duncan talks about the desire of the Reconstructionists to “formulate a right-wing alternative to more liberal evangelical social ethics.” No Biblical Christian ever thinks that they are offering “a Right wing alternative”. Instead Reconstructionists believe themselves to be only Biblical. Being referred to as “Right Wing” is problematic.

Also on page 3 Dr. Duncan says that

“Reconstructionism is attempting to make a systematic and exegetical connection between the Bible and the conservative ideology of limited government and free market economics.”

Now, we will only briefly note that the phrase “conservative ideology” once again seems to me to be an attempt to prejudice the debate. Who wants to be a practitioner of “conservative ideology?” More importantly what Dr. Duncan says in the quote above is only partially true. It would be more accurate to say that Reconstuctionism is resurrecting the preexisting systematic and exegetical connections between the Bible and the Biblical ideology of limited government and free market economics. Those connections existed long before Reconstructionists came on the scene. Reading Charles McCoy’s “Fountainhead Of Federalism” or John Witte’s “The Reformation of Rights” are two books that establishe that reality. Also, looking at Puritan theory regarding the Holy Commonwealth likewise shows systematic connections between limited government and free market economics that long predate the Reconstructionists. The point here is that Reconstructionists are not creating these connections between Biblical Christianity and Limited Government and Free market economics, but rather those connections existed long before Reconstructionists came on the scene (compare also Rutherford’s ‘Lex Rex’ when it comes to Limited Governments). Besides is Dr. Duncan really suggesting that the Bible is mute when it comes to Centralized and oppressive governments and planned economies?

Dr. Duncan notes Reconstructionism’s opposition to State financed education. Yet, people the caliber of R. L. Dabney, A. A. Hodge and J. Gresham Machen, to name only a few, likewise had grave reservations about State financed education, and Dabney, Hodge and Machen were no Reconstructionists (though they may have been proto-Reconstuctionists). I think because of the work of men like of Dabney, Hodge, Machen and the Reconstructionists there is a basic understanding that education is faith based driven. In short though Dr. Duncan identifies this aspect of the Reconstructionists he says nothing about how this is pretty standard fare for Reformed Christians.

On page 5 and again on page 7 Dr. Duncan seemingly subtly complains about Dr. Van Til’s emphasis on the anti-thesis as it manifests itself in operating autonomously or theonomously, and yet Jesus Himself said … “He who does not gather with me scatters,” and “He that is not with me is against me.” We find ourselves desiring to ask Dr. Duncan if he thinks that these verses only apply in the religious realm. (However that realm may be defined.)

Throughout the essay from page 7 on Dr. Duncan once again suggests that the Reconstructionists propensity to pay attention to the case law is unique to them. Yet Turretin who preceded the Reconstructionists by about 400 years likewise paid attention to the case laws. The only difference it seems between Turretin and Bahnsen is that Turretin was willing to allow other punishments for crimes to be implemented than those designated in the OT case laws to be levied against particular crimes while Bahnsen insisted that the penalties set forth in the Scriptures should be maintained. What they both agreed on though is that what the OT case laws said were crimes were indeed crimes. In short both Turretin and Bahnsen paid close attention to the case laws with the only difference being how ‘general equity’ was to be understood when it came to punishment.

On page 8 Dr. Duncan says that Dr. Bahnsen’s case for a twofold division of the law as opposed to a threefold division is not convincing, but the argument that he uses to reach that conclusion is itself not convincing. Dr. Duncan uses a kind of ‘you to’ argument to make his case. Dr. Duncan suggests that Bahnsen’s unraveling of the traditional three fold separation of the law (Moral, Civil, Ceremonial) is not legitimate because Dr. Bahnsen does the same type of thing in his methodology that Dr. Bahnsen points out in what he is attacking. The problem with Dr. Duncan’s argument here is that it is not a rebuttal of Dr. Bahnsen without at the same time being an admission that Dr. Bahnsen’s analysis is correct. It sounds like what Dr. Duncan is saying is, “Well, Dr. Bahnsen may be right in his fault finding analysis of the typical methodology but he does the same thing in his methodology.” If Dr. Bahnsen does the same thing it doesn’t prove that the traditional three fold methodology is right. At best it only proves that they are both wrong. At that point it seems that we are left to examining the underlying rational or principle of God’s Word as it pertains to the Law.

Next, Dr. Duncan argues for the end of what has been called the civil law by arguing that the changes transpiring in redemptive history negate the civil law. If this is so then it seems that we are left with the dichotomizing of the Sacred and secular realms. In Dr. Duncan’s arrangement we see that in the Old Covenant God was clearly over all areas of life as he ruled through the Nation-State-Church Israel. However with the coming of the New Covenant God apparently has not clearly spoken as exhaustively as He did in the old and worst covenant. According to Dr. Duncan God’s speaking is now restricted to the New covenant institution of the Church, where we find according to Dr. Duncan “a superior institutional expression of God’s will.” Clearly what seems to be implicit in all of this is that while God rules perspicuously in the Church, we are left to kind of ‘making it up as we go’ in the putatively ‘secular realm’ where because of the ‘change in redemptive economy’ God’s rule and eternal standard for the State is no longer as much of a concern. That this is true is seen in the eclipsing of the civil law with the change in redemptive economy.

On page 9 Dr. Duncan does a turn about in this Criticism of Dr. Bahnsen. Whereas earlier on page 8 Dr. Duncan complains that Dr. Bahnsen’s “own categories are based not on explicit Scriptural testimony but on what Bahnsen calls an ‘underlying rational or principle,'” yet just a few paragraphs later Dr. Duncan takes Dr. Bahnsen to task because ‘Bahnsen’s case is often dependent upon a sort of fundamentalist, proof-texting approach to exposition. One is left asking which criticism we should take seriously. Is Dr. Bahnsen to be faulted because he doesn’t use explicit Scriptural testimony or is Dr. Bahnsen to be faulted because he does use explicit Scriptural testimony?

In conclusion we must say that we are grateful to Dr. Duncan for this synopsis. Dr. Duncan’s summary on Theonomy is spot on at various points. Unfortunately when Dr. Duncan goes from summary to critique in this paper his points sometimes are not what we might hope they would be.

Galatians 5:1

It is for Freedom that Christ has set us free; continue to stand firm, therefore, and do not be loaded down again w/ a yoke of slavery.

In the previous section of Galatians that we looked at together we saw the Holy Spirit’s insistence that as Children of the promise we are born of the Free woman (30, 31) — born of the Spirit and we stand in contradistinction to those who belong to the bondwoman and who are enslaved to the law.

In this next section the Apostle emphasizes that difference again by explicitly stating that the consequence of being released is Freedom accompanied with the injunction to not go back to those things that scream bondage and will, if returned to, deliver one back to that former bondage.

Now as the issue of Freedom has come front and center here we would do well to ask just exactly what kind of ‘Freedom’ is spoken of here. What does the Holy Spirit mean here when He speaks of Freedom?

To answer that perhaps we would do well to explore what it is we are Freed (delivered) from and what it is we we are delivered to.

In the context of this letter to the Galatians clearly Freedom means first to be delivered from the vain attempt to use a law system, that is absent of proclaiming Christ, as a means of salvation. The Judaizers were insisting that the ceremonial law that had been fulfilled with the coming and faithfulness of Christ remained in effect. They insisted on circumcision and many other of the Jewish accouterments that the death of Christ had made obsolete and retrograde.

The Galatians have peace and access (Romans 5:1-2) with God only because of their union with the Christ and His finished work (Romans 6). They are free from the wrong use of the Law that the Judaizers are seeking to foist upon them.

We have said repeatedly that the problem here in Galatians is with the desire to embrace a obviated ceremonial law. But we should hasten to add that we move back to bondage anytime we try to use God’s law in any of its senses as a means to catapult into God’s presence and favor apart from relying on His introduction on our behalf (forensic righteousness) and without our union with our ascended Lord.

In this Freedom that comes from the deliverance from the law we have a freedom from the nagging fear and accusing conscience that our performance is not what the law requires. As the Galatians were delivered from a salvation that was connected with their personal adherence to the ceremonial law so when we consider the implications of that truth we realize that, being completely and irrevocably saved, we are free from seeking to acquire a salvation based upon a performance that isn’t exclusively based upon Christ’s performance for us.

As Freemen we are not awake with night sweats that our performance is inadequate to what is required. Correspondingly, as freemen we no longer try to deceive ourselves that our lack performance really provides an obedience that measures up to God’s standard apart from Christ’s righteousness. We have been set free from both the despair that comes with the realization that our performance is not adequate (There is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus) and the self-righteous delusion that our performance is adequate.

However not only is it the case that we have been freed from, but it is also the case that we have been freed to. The freedom is not only negative but it is also positive.

As the Apostle will go into a bit later in the letter we have been freed to walk and live in the Spirit, and so produce the fruit of the Spirit. Having been covered with Christ and united to Christ we are free from the compulsory service that comes from being a slave and delivered to the delight that comes from cheerful service that issues from a son. We have been set free from trying to use obedience to attain an uncertain salvation and set free to serve in gratitude from a salvation that is already present and can’t be recalled.

We might also say here that because of this deliverance that has issued in freedom that Christians should be people who do not carry the kind of psychological baggage that comes with being in bondage. Having been set free we are free from guilt and having been set free from guilt we no longer live our lives trying to alleviate ourselves by self-atonement that expresses itself in a host of different ways, nor do we allow ourselves to be manipulated by guilt that we no longer have. Having been set free by Christ we no longer do shame, or alienation or despair or fear, or any number of the other psychological consequences that come with not yet being freed from our sin and united to Christ. These things no longer should master us. All of these things belong to the children of the bondwoman. It is for Freedom that Christ has set us free.

From what we see from the Galatians though we understand that retaining this unbridled freedom is work. We must be constantly reminded that ‘we are not to be loaded down again with a yoke of slavery’ (5:1b). We must persevere in the fight against spiritual re-enslavement.

As Calvin said, the heart is an idol factory and each one of those manufactured Idols seek to enslave again the person who creates them. There is something about the fallen human creature that he fears the kind of freedom that Christ offers. Perhaps it is the fear that comes with the realization that this master cannot be manipulated. The spiritual slavery that comes with other false gods can be alluring if only because in all of these bondages there is a false sense that the Idol that is holding the keys to the slaves bondage can be manipulated by certain behaviors, incantations, or ritual. In the Christian faith we are spiritually free but that brings with it the reality of a God that cannot be manipulated. In our Christian freedom we must be satisfied with a free God who cannot be manipulated and who is free to do with us as He desires.

We still find that kind of thinking today in Evangelicalism. There is still a sense that by pursuing certain behaviors, incantations, or rituals we can manipulate God into doing what we want. As freemen we are not satisfied with a free God.

Of Pietistic Ghettos, Intellectual Confrontation, & Hurried Calls For Spiritual Decision

“Yet twentieth-century evangelicals have been unable rationally to lift this generation to a clear vision of the reality of the supernatural, not simply because of human unregeneracy but because of their withdrawal into pietistic ghettos and their hurried call for spiritual decision which often leaps over an effectual intellectual confrontation.”

Dr. Carl F. H. Henry
God, Revelation and Authority Vol. 1 pg. 114

Actually, since the problem that Henry cites continues in the widespread double whammy ‘success’ of the Pentecostal (Charismatic) / Church Growth ‘gospel’ the worse thing in the world that could happen would be for these ‘converts’ to move out of their pietistic ghettos. The ‘Gospel’ continues to go forward and the Church continues to be built by ‘the hurried call for spiritual decision’ and by ‘leaping over an effectual intellectual confrontation.’

Anecdotally speaking, I saw this again, up close and personal when attending a ‘Promise Keepers’ conference several years ago. The first night was dedicated to a ‘gospel presentation’ and when the altar call was extended the front was wall to wall people presumably ‘giving their hearts to Jesus.’ The only problem was that their was no gospel in the gospel message that was preached. These people couldn’t give their hearts to Jesus because Jesus was nowhere to be found.

Likewise, in our Churches today there is very little ‘intellectual confrontation.’ To be perfectly honest, you would face mammoth difficulties by trying to build a self supporting Church with an ‘intellectual confrontation,’ approach. The last thing our culture wants is to be confronted. Better to emotionally manipulate people into getting saved, then to spend the intellectual effort, and the time required to articulate the wonder of God and the prevalent and deceptive nature of sin. You see, if you leap over effectual intellectual confrontation to emotional manipulation you avoid the heavy lifting that intellectual confrontation requires of the speaker and the requirement of real change (repentance) demanded upon those who listen.

As long as the Church continues to operate this way we need to sincerely pray that God would keep us in the ghettos because the damage we could do if we get outside the ghettos and into the mainstream would be devastating both to the mainstream and to the reputation of the Christian faith. Contemporarily speaking, a guy like Mike Huckabee is a perfect example of the embarrassment accruing to Christians when somebody gets off the reservation.

I am not arguing for an hyper academic Church. People like me, who are not particularly sharp knives, would be lost in that kind of setting. What I am arguing for is a Church that is willing to think through both how sin subtly manifests itself and how Christ’s redemption should be a cure and reversal of that. I am arguing for a church that quits with the emotional propaganda in order to make headway among people. I am arguing for a Church that realizes that the Gospel has a trajectory that requires Christians to have the ability to be vigorous thinkers — even and especially among the ‘rank and file.’

Lord Christ, grant us Reformation in head and members.

Chistopher J. H. Wright — On The Law

“The motivation for God’s people to live by God’s law is ultimately to bless the nations. After all, what would the nations actually see? The nearness of God is by definition invisible. What, then, would be visible? Only the practical evidence of the kind of society that was built on God’s righteous laws. There is a vital link between the invisible religious claims of the people of God (that God is near them when they pray) and their very visible practical social ethic. The world will be interested in the first only when it sees the second. Or conversely the world will see no reason to pay any attention to our claims about our invisible God, however much we boast of His alleged nearness to us in prayer, if it sees no difference between the lives of those who make such claims and those who don’t.”

Christopher J. H. Wright
The Mission Of God — pg. 380

If we stipulate that the motivation for God’s people to live by God’s law is ultimately to glorify God and then penultimately to bless the nations we would heartily endorse Wright’s words here.

There are those who insist that God’s law is not abiding as it pertains to the ‘laws of nations’ believing instead that we should look to natural law for the establishment of law. Those who reason this way look to the Old Testament laws and insist that if we are to properly read the Scriptures in a redemptive-historical fashion we will see that the covenantal ethics that were established for the nation State of Israel fall under a rubric called ‘intrusion ethics’ and are no longer applicable today. This is a kind of Reformed dispensationalizing of the law texts in the Old Testament with the result that the greater but temporary fullness of the consummational Kingdom that was represented by the laws that governed National Israel in the Old Testament is withdrawn in the New covenant age only to await their re-implementation in the fullness of the Christ’s Kingdom that appears with the second advent. There is a GREAT deal wrong with this view but the most obvious seems to be this revisionist Reformed theology ends up making the Old Covenant a better covenant then the New Covenant. Also there is the problem that in relation to the ‘now, not yet’ of eschatology what this theology ends up doing is reversing what we would expect to find. What this theology does is that it front loads the ‘now’ in the Old Covenant choosing to emphasize the ‘not yet’ in the ‘age to come’ which Christ has brought in with His birth, death, resurrection, advent and session. In short, this theology under-realizes severely the reality that with Christ’s coming the Kingdom is present.

Obviously such people would strongly disagree with Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright’s quote above. While these radical two Kingdom types agree that the law applies to a personal ethic what they disagree with is the idea of a Biblical social ethic that is informed and governed by the Old Testament case law. Such Theologians can and have ended up suggesting that the Church should not speak out against matters like Homosexual marriage since that is an issue that belongs to the common grace realm. Ideas have consequences.

I will have more to say about the idea of the revisionist ‘intrusion ethic’ in my next post. Also I haven’t forgotten that I need to finish the Dr. J. P. Moreland paper on the problem of to many Christians taking the Bible to seriously.