Sorry for the title. No, that’s not a precursor for any kind of wedding bells, I can assure you. This is, instead, yet another in the seemingly eternal series of misquotes and misrepresentations by Jordan Hall in our recent debate. This one occurred during cross-examination when he asked me whether I thought Theonomy is “an old thing or a new thing.” I suspected some kind of fallacy was lurking behind the question, and as you will see, that suspicion was more than correct.
I answered Hall, “I would say it’s a combination of both.” Anyone with a basic understanding of the history of teaching concerning God’s judicial precepts in the Old Testament would understand why this is the case. Whether any particular government has ever perfectly implemented such a standard or not, some teaching of Theonomy has existed at least since the early Reformation, and probably before. Thus it would clearly be an “old thing.” Nevertheless, considering that modern proponents—Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen, and others—have certainly given it much greater refinement, distinction, fullness, and detail, it could thus be said to a degree that it is also a “new thing.”
Jordan took my response as an opinion that Theonomy is indeed “older”—which is, of course, acceptable, since I do in part see it that way. But it was at this point that Jordan stood ready to spring a trap. He quoted Gary North to prove that just the opposite of what I thought is true! He referenced North’s Backward Christian Soldiers?, page 267, saying this:
Theonomy is quote: “a recently articulated philosophy. It is unquestionably new, a major break in church history, a theological revolution.”
Wow. Now that sounds like a slam dunk. The only problem is, this quotation does not exist. It is made up, fabricated, in that it is a Frankenstein quotation cobbled-together from disparate sources, with different referents, with differing nuances, and in different contexts.
First, let us begin with the source Jordan actually cited. Page 267 of Backward Christian Soldiers? begins the glossary of that book. The first term in that glossary is not “Theonomy” as Jordan claimed, but the more complex body of thought known as “Christian Reconstruction.” This is what North’s entry actually says:
CHRISTIAN RECONSTRUCTION A recently articulated philosophy which argues that it is the moral obligation of Christians to recapture every institution for Jesus Christ. It proclaims “the crown rights of King Jesus.” The means by which this task might be accomplished—a few CR’s are not convinced that it can be—is biblical law. . . . The founders of the movement have combined four basic Christian beliefs into one overarching system: 1) biblical law, 2) optimistic eschatology, 3) predestination (providence), and 4) presuppositional apologetics (philosophical defense of the faith). Not all CR’s hold all four positions, but the founders have held all four. . . .
Note a couple things about this. First, this is not a statement about “Theonomy,” but about the broader and more complex system of “Christian Reconstruction.” Why Jordan neglected this I don’t know exactly. It’s not like you could miss it—that is, if you actually read it. North even put the glossary term in BOLD TYPEFACE and ALL CAPS for just such an occasion.
Second, it’s not like Jordan didn’t know the difference between the two and, in fact, he personally accepts the difference. Indeed, in the Q&A session at the end of the debate, he himself leveraged this very distinction in order to answer a question regarding Paul’s treatment of the reported incestuous sinner in 1 Corinthians 5. It is often argued that since Paul did not call for the death penalty here, therefore the civil penal sanctions are no longer in effect. The obvious answer to this is that Paul was not a civil magistrate and was not dealing with the matter in a civil court; not to mention, it’s an argument from silence. Jordan responded to the question in part by saying the following:
You may be able to hang on to the fact that Paul is still a Theonomist, but you couldn’t hang on to the thought that Paul was a Reconstructionist, because he would be like a terrible Reconstructionist. Because, aren’t you supposed to try to change things? . . .
So clearly Jordan not only acknowledges the distinction between Theonomy (the subject of God’s law proper) and Christian Reconstruction (the broader set of teachings including eschatology and activism), but he also clearly understands the distinction, accepts it, and even applies it in an argument.
Why then did he not take care to inform the audience in the prior instance that he was quoting North on Reconstruction and not on “Theonomy” as he claimed? (As you’ll see in a minute, it’s quite possible he did not even read it from the original source.)
Third, you may be inquiring yourself, what is the difference between “Theonomy” and “Christian Reconstruction.” While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are nevertheless distinct. “Theonomy” means “God’s law” and refers to that topic alone. “Christian Reconstruction,” however, refers, as North said above, to a system of thought that includes Theonomy (“biblical law”), but also includes presuppositional apologetics, Reformed theology, and postmillennialism (usually). In short, Theonomy is a subheading within Christian Reconstruction—but it is in no way logically or historically dependent upon it.
While it is certainly true that the packaging together of these four sets of beliefs constituted a new outlook in the twentieth century, the same could not be said about advocates of biblical law alone (Theonomy)—which is what the question (and the debate, by the way) was about. That topic had, as we noted, been taught and promoted at least as early as the Reformation. We find references from critics of the position beginning already in the early 1520s. So, it is not only incorrect to misquote North in allegedly saying “Theonomy” is recent, the fact is also easily debunked historically as well.
The rest of the quotation
While it is clear enough already that Jordan was engaging in some misrepresentation here, we have not yet even examined the rest of the Frankenstein quotation he presented. Upon examination, it is further clear that the remainder of it does not appear at all in the source Jordan cited—Backward Christian Soldiers?, page 267. The glossary entry there contains nothing like the second half of the quotation allegedly regarding “Theonomy”: “It is unquestionably new, a major break in church history, a theological revolution.”
So I did what any academic researcher would do in this situation. I went to Google. And behold, what was revealed? Just as with the “quote mining” we discovered in dealing with Jordan’s second-hand quotations from William Perkins and others, so we found another such example here. This one comes from an exposé written by a former Reconstructionist Greg L. Durand. The first sentence of that document reads thusly:
The influence of the Reconstruction movement, also known as Theonomy, is quite broad despite the admission of one of its founders that it is “a recently articulated philosophy,” “unquestionably new,” “a major break” with two thousand years of Church history, and a “theological revolution.”
Sound familiar? Someone’s been caught with their hand in the cookie jar again. The problem, however, is not only the charade of it all, but the fact that the original article actually cited its sources for the rest of those lines, and Jordan mistakenly only related the first one. The first footnote referred to a glossary entry not only relating to a different subject that the narrower topic of “Theonomy,” it was an incomplete reference, leaving other people to do Jordan’s homework for him.
So, what does that homework reveal? The source for the latter quotations is North’s Tools of Dominion, page 7. In the Introduction to Tools, Gary does indeed use those phrases, but they are certainly nuanced in a context other than Durand, and Jordan citing Durand, portrayed. Here is North’s context:
What I want to stress from the outset is that writing this economic commentary has been very nearly a bootstrap operation. For almost two thousand years, Bible commentators—Jews and gentiles—have simply not taken seriously the specific details of Old Testament law. Despite the fact that John Calvin did preach about two hundred sermons on the Book of Deuteronomy, including its case laws, and that the Puritans, especially the New England Puritans, did take biblical law seriously, they did not write detailed expositions showing how these laws can be applied institutionally in New Testament times.
I found only two exegetical books repeatedly useful in writing this volume: R. J. Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) and James Jordan’s Law of the Covenant (1984). Both are recent studies, and both are written by people who share my view of how the Old Testament case laws should be read, interpreted, and applied in New Testament times. This exegetical approach is unquestionably new, especially when coupled with Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. This is why the Christian Reconstruction movement does represent a major break with recent church history. On this point—and just about only on this one—Reconstructionism’s critics are correct. We represent a discontinuity in church history. Christian Reconstructionists alone have gone to the Bible’s legal passages in search of permanent authoritative guidelines (“blueprints”) for what society ought to do and be. In this sense, we Reconstructionists are theological revolutionaries. . . .
So, even here, while North could be understood as making reference more directly to Theonomy, he doesn’t even use the term. Instead, he is making a very nuanced point about his commentary. It is not that Theonomy in and of itself is a new thing, it is that the more detailed, exegetical approach taken to actually apply that to which others gave lip-service, or only preached through more generally, that can be understood as something new. But even here, is this a criticism? After all, since when is more detailed exegesis considered a bad thing?
It should be clear, however, that the more general approach to Theonomy has certainly existed, since North is able to cite Calvin and the Puritans as general forerunners. In fact, in light of more recent research into the study of Hebrew political thought following the Reformation and extending into the eighteenth century, this list would have to be greatly expanded. By my own count—and this is based only on one single private library inventory from 1739—there were at the very least 27 major works on Old Testament polity between 1546 and 1710. Many of these are lost, buried, obscure, or simply forgotten today—time, chance, and pietism happeneth to all—but some are remembered, and some are being resurrected and studied. More will surely come to light. What this means is that “Theonomy” has a much more entrenched historical pedigree than even we thought before (and it was not hard to find before!).
Most importantly, however, for the quotation from North’s Tools, is that he was not talking about Theonomy itself being new, but about the level of detail in exegesis and specific application to specific intellectual disciplines, e.g. economics. And even then, he spoke about it as new and revolutionary especially when coupled with Van Til’s apologetic, and in reference to the movement of Christian Reconstruction, not all by itself. So here once again we have context and nuance showing us a different point than Jordan was trying to foist upon us.
In light of the foregoing points, I feel even more vindicated in my final debate answer to Jordan on this issue. After providing the mongrelized, Frankenstein, non-existent quotation from North, he tried to put me on the spot with, “would you disagree with that?” Even without being able to check all the citations for veracity and context on the spot, I responded:
If it was qualified to mean the modern expression of Theonomy as it’s come forth, I would agree with him; but if you mean “Have there ever been times in the past where people tried to institute the Mosaic code, or upheld the same principles in some way?” I would say, no, it’s old.
What you see here is an example of how scholars, especially Christian scholars, are supposed to act and think. I don’t say this merely to pat myself on the back. The point is that Christian scholarship must be conducted with integrity, veracity, and concern for the truth no matter what else is going on around you.
The public discourse of theology is not about artifacts to be cut and pasted according to one’s own agenda and with disregard for facts. It is a custodianship—a stewardship. And as Paul says, “it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor. 4:2). When confronted with a quotation that struck me as odd and untrustworthy—and which, it turns out, did not even exist in the way it was presented—I responded with condition, nuance, and suspended judgment. For those who care to seek the truth, answers will await them in due time. I rely upon this belief quite often.
Those who don’t care, however, will rush ahead with fallacy without checking—but worse, they will rush ahead in condemnation of their brethren without verifying their condemnations first. And, they will reap the rewards of fallacy. Those who persist in fallacy even after being corrected will further reap the deserts of dishonesty.
So is Theonomy new or old? It is both. It depends mainly upon the fame of reference for the question. Let’s learn to respect the frame of reference and answer accordingly. Let us not seek to impose our own agendas upon the words of others and misrepresent them in the process.