I was greatly enthused to introduce to you our new book, God’s Law and Government in America, a collection of three historic sermons in which prominent New England ministers call for Theonomy in the civil realm. You can read that intro here.
That was Monday. On Tuesday I was informed that the Pulpit & Pen blog (Mr. Hall) was attacking American Vision for allegedly engaging in some covert conspiracy to “soften” the sound and meaning of Theonomy and to re-write American history. Indeed, we are labeled, for the second time now, “American ReVision.” Let me say up front: the kind of selective critique you’re about to review (usually championed by liberals) is one reason you definitely need to read these sermons for yourself: so you can hear what these faithful and brave preachers have to say for themselves in full.
First, let me say that this is little comical in that it comes from someone who collaborated in an alleged “last word on theonomy” three weeks ago, which itself was a bit comical because it itself came after a claim to want to avoid “endless back-and-forth in social media or elsewhere on the topic.” The humor in it aside, I am not sure what exactly to think of such a pointed and unprovoked attack on my integrity and personal intentions as this.
The charges leveled against me (and American Vision) are 1) “intentional blurring of terms” using the “conveniently invented term, theonomic,” and 2) an apparent revision of American history.
For the first complaint, the post says,
[I]n particular, McDurmon’s use of the adjective theonomic is telling. As Colin Pearson describes in his start-up podcast named “DatPostMil” (the April 29 episode with Sye Ten Bruggencate), the term “theonomic” is used to soften the terminology and broaden the philosophy’s definition to mean those who “love God’s Law” and increase its acceptance. In fact, this is an intentional approach to take very specific philosophical tenets of theonomy and broadens it to a generalized dishonesty.
Such intentional blurring of terms makes profitable debate impossible.
I already have a keen idea of what kinds of things make profitable debate impossible. I’d say that other things being equal, I am the most up-to-date expert on that topic. To this point, however, although I am a fan of and have been interviewed by DatPostmil, I have never listened to this particular podcast with Sye, nor have I ever heard of any theonomist using the label “theonomic” in such a way before. The charge of some nefarious use of the terminology on my part is absurd.
Instead, I use the term as a simple adjective. After all, how else is one supposed to make an adjective out of the word “Theonomy”? Theonomic it is. It’s that simple.
It should not surprise us, then, that the seminal work Theonomy in Christian Ethics contains the word “theonomic” scores of times—I count 78 in the current PDF edition. In one of these instances, in fact, Bahnsen used the word in a definitional sense. He wrote, “common parlance (if not partisan antipathy) has come to conventionally label the distinctive theses of this book (the ethical perspective of ‘Reconstructionism’) as the ‘theonomic position.’”
That was from the “Preface” to the Second Edition, written in 1983—32 years ago. And please note, Bahnsen was saying that this common parlance included his critics who, from that early date, apparently had no problem accepting and adopting the term “theonomic” for our position.
Thus, the idea that this term was recently invented for the convenient purpose of softening our approach is as thoughtlessly uninformed as it is absurd.
My advice for potential critics would be to do basic homework on the particular point first before inventing wild conspiracy theories.
Secondly, it has been suggested that I am revising American history by referring to these examples of early Theonomy among New England ministers. This criticism is, however, unfounded, as it is based on selective reference and selective counterexample.
One will note, for example, that the criticizing post does not relate a single quotation concerning the distinctive theonomic views expressed in any of the sermons. Not surprising, I know, but it is just as irresponsible as ever.
My favorite sermon in God’s Law and Government in America is Nathaniel Appleton’s “The Great Blessing of Good Rulers Depends upon God’s Giving His Judgment and His Righteousness to Them.” The theonomic content there is obvious to anyone who reads it. But instead of relating and interacting with any of this content or its historical context, Appleton is simply dismissed as a “minority perspective” that was “roundly rejected.”
This dismissal is rather hasty to say the least. One wonders, for example, why such a roundly rejected minority viewpoint would be invited to speak at a state function—an election sermon—to be heard by the Assembly, judges, magistrates, and governor himself, along with many of the other prominent clergy. What kind of leadership would make such a stupid decision, were that the case?
Appleton was quite a prominent figure, as were the other two preachers in GLGA. Appleton was well-known, Harvard-educated, and was a member of the Corporation of Harvard (the equivalent of a modern day board of directors). James Dana was a famous preacher and pamphleteer who was known for his views on government. Samuel Langdon was every bit as famous if not more: before this sermon, he had served as President of Harvard, and was well known for revolutionary-themed sermons and for his service as a statesman.
All of these men, as my article and the book show, held to some version of the view that the judicial laws of Moses were indeed as moral and perpetual as the “moral” law—and indeed were but extensions of it. Langdon, preaching as late as 1788, states that not just some but “by the far the greater part of the judicial laws” belong in this category. And as Alice Baldwin shows irrefutably, this viewpoint was common among the New England preachers for a long time. That’s what inspired me to select these three sermons from 1742, 1779, and 1788.
In regard to the second sermon (by James Dana), the critic rises only to the level of quoting me, and then dismissing my “conclusion” with certain counterevidence. What was my conclusion? That the points Dana was making were “taken directly from Mosaic political doctrine.”
Note here that I was speaking of “Mosaic political doctrine.” My next paragraph made clear exactly what I meant, and each point was backed with Scripture references from the books of Moses. Why this was not related is inexcusable for anyone on the side of truth. How anyone could dismiss this simple fact is beyond me. Even secular historians have acknowledged this point widely for decades. The fact that some other preachers in other venues disagreed is no surprise to anyone—although the extent to which they disagreed is sometimes exaggerated as well—a point I will address later.
It is also helpful to know that my treatment of New England Puritanism in both my Introductions to GLGA and Alice Baldwin’s The New England Pulpit and the American Revolution acknowledge that these preachers often were not theonomic in the sense that I would agree with them on every detail—and indeed they were so to greater or lesser degrees between them. They are, however, in agreement with the general idea that at least some of the judicial laws of Moses are moral and perpetual, and thus binding on us today. Again, those who would like to see just how explicitly this is the case can do what our critics apparently don’t want them to do: go read the quotations for yourself. Better yet, buy the book, and read all the sermons in their glorious entirety along with the background material in my Introduction.
While there is so much more that can be said in regard to this particular criticism, I think the gist of it is clear. Its particular style of half-truth and spin has come to be expected, but the unnecessary attack seems to be a new wrinkle. This is especially troubling considering how the same author has previously condemned theonomy as causing “costic [sic] and vitriolic division” between brethren. Yet, the unprovoked and needless attacks seem to be coming from the self-proclaimed seekers of unity.
As always, I welcome serious criticism. It usually gives opportunity for growth and development. When criticism lacks rigor and integrity, however, it only gives opportunity for correcting the record once again.
Finally, there is an insane amount of irony in a post centered on demanding rigid definitional standards and fine distinctions by others which yet neglects that same standard on virtually every argument it uses to defend its demand.
Yet after such a performance, the critic concludes, “What American Vision and Joel McDurmon need to do a much better job of doing is articulating the views of theonomy founders. . . .” In light of the above, my advice would be that before a critic assays to tell American Vision and Joel McDurmon how to do their job, you attend more closely to your own.