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 think it is also important to consider Duncan’s earlier statements in light of the intention of a journal that he is attached with to devote an issue to Theonomy. If we properly note Dr. Duncan’s errors here we can be prepared to likely find those same errors in the upcoming Journal publication.
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 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 pre-existing 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’ is one book that establishes 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’ by the inventive means of Natural Law 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 used 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.