Reading through Robert Lewis Reymond’s Systematic Theology recently, I was struck by what seemed to be an out-of-place cheap shot at Theonomy and Christian Reconstruction. When I looked at a footnote the author provided, things got interesting. It revealed not only how poorly many reformed theologians have processed the teachings of Theonomy, but also once again how in doing so they keep blaming Theonomy for the problems caused by their own views of “two kingdoms” and the “spirituality of the Church.”
Given also my recent work on slavery, the connection which appeared also contained the ironic connection between Reymond and an earlier Robert Lewis—i.e., Dabney.
The Spirituality of the Church
In his section on the nature of the church’s authority, Reymond teaches the traditional American Reformed emphasis. Because the “authority of the church” is “exclusively spiritual and moral,” the church can give no endorsement of any secular, civil, or legislative act of the state. In explanation of this, Reymond opines,
The medieval church was dead wrong when it endorsed, under Innocent IV’s bull Ad extirpanda (1252), the use of torture to break the will of heretics and to extort recantations from them, and penalize the unrepentant with confiscation of goods, imprisonment, and their surrender to the “Secular arm,” which meant death at the stake.
Of course, on this point every Theonomist would agree. The problem, however, as we shall see, is not the content so much as the rationalization of how and why one arrives at it.
To begin with, there is a contradiction inherent in this process. Reymond says the church was dead wrong to endorse the surrender of such alleged criminals to the state—but by what standard does he says this? Does he say it because it is wrong for the state to execute heretics? If he says that from the pulpit, as a representative of the church, he immediately violates his own standard: for the spiritual authority cannot pronounce upon the legislative authority of the state. If the state decides it will burn heretics, the church has no authority to say otherwise.
But if he gives the obviously righteous answer that, yes, indeed, the pulpit should decry this conduct by the state, then two things must follow:
1. He must admit that his former standard is wrong: the pulpit does indeed have not only a right but an obligation to pronounce upon civil, secular, and legislative matters, and
2. He must provide the exegesis for the content of that proclamation (either for or against the execution of heretics
Reymond feels this tension, and cannot remain consistent, as we will see. He has further such spiritual judgments upon legislative affairs, this time not against “the church,” but directly against the king and queen:
The Spanish Inquisition in 1479 under Ferdinand V and Isabella, in particular, was aimed at Jews, Muslims, and later Protestants, and under its first Grand Inquisitor, Tomas Torquemada, burned some two thousand people for heresy and expelled from the Holy Roman Empire Jews who refused to be baptized.
Then back to the church, but the points on the state’s side still stand:
The church was wrong when in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries it launched the Crusades (eight or nine in all) to recover the Holy Land from Islam. Martin Luther was wrong when he called for the German Princes to use the sword against the Anabaptists. The Protestant leaders at Geneva, including John Calvin, were wrong when they burned Servetus as a heretic. The English Reformers under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I were wrong when they employed the secular authority to persecute Roman Catholics,
Then comes the final stroke:
And the theonomic reconstructionists of our day are just as wrong when they call upon the state to execute false prophets, witches, adulterers, and homosexuals.
When Reymond repeats his explanation for why this is the case, however, he again creates tension with its own point:
The church is to address the spiritual and moral needs of men and women who are, prior to their salvation, by nature slaves to sin and Satan, and who are, after their salvation, in need to instruction in the details of living out their most holy faith before a watching world.
Then, the obligatory caveat:
This is not to say that the church must not speak out against political injustice and moral abuses by the state—it must be willing to speak out against moral abuses wherever they occur. But the church’s officers must never resort to physical force in order to establish a beachhead for the church within the human community it seeks to reach for Christ.1
Well, which is it? “Must” the church speak out on issues of the civil state, or is it “dead wrong” when it does so? Is it only “dead wrong” on certain issues? If it must, but must not on certain issues and penalties, then by what standard does it determine?
Further, who in the world ever said the church’s officers must use physical force? This is the greatest of strawmen, and the worst of dishonesties if applied to Theonomy or Christian Reconstruction, which is the implication here.
Reymond’s “must,” however, is also not taken very seriously by its author. After stating that, he goes on for a 25 page section on the “duties” (read “musts”) of the church, and never mentions it once. Instead, we get page after page about worship, liturgy, etc.
In the process, Reymond cites his namesake, Robert Lewis Dabney, as support of his critique of theonomic reconstructionism. He references Dabney’s Lectures on Systematic Theology (1878, reprinted in 1985), pages 869–875. Dabney’s Lectures here differ from most systematics in that they contain a dedicated treatment of the civil magistrate and religious liberty—two separate chapters spanning 25 pages (862–887 in my 1976 edition). It will come as a surprise to many who have assumed or been led to believe that Dabney was in some way theonomic that Dabney squarely supports the view laid out by Reymond.
Sorting out the confusion
The problem in all of this is at least two-fold. First, Theonomists have always held to the separation of church and state and the purely spiritual nature of the church’s authority. The church and state are separate institutions under God. The church’s “sword” is the Word of God only, and the state, institutionally speaking, has exclusive right to the literal sword. The problem for Reymond is that no theonomist has ever said otherwise; no theonomist has ever taught that the church should have “a police force or battalions of soldiers” as Reymond suggests, or to carry out torture, punishments, fines, etc., as he lists.
Second, however, the system which undergirds Reymond’s and Dabney’s doctrine of separation is not biblical, and as such it leaves them in logical contradictions and moral dilemmas. It leaves them, quite frankly, with no biblical basis or standard for confronting any particular injustice in society or state. They may be able to make vague affirmations about the church’s duty in this area, as Reymond does, but they cannot provide an biblical application in any particular case.
Dabney’s case is, of course, the clearest here. His defense of slavery rested, as most of them did (Thornwell, et al), firmly upon the exclusively spiritual nature of the church. By this doctrine the defenders of the American atrocities held the churches’ mouths closed on the subject, except to support the states’ laws and read them, dutifully, from the pulpits every year. Any injustice that was mentioned was quickly silenced by the claim that that’s a civil, secular, and legislative matter—outside the church’s spiritual authority. We cannot pronounce upon that. It must be left to God’s providence in history.
A reader of my book The Problem of Slavery in Christian America told me the other day that the greatest takeaway she thought was the reality of how damaging and dangerous this “spirituality of the church,” or “two kingdoms” doctrine, as it has been taught and applied, really has been. This is only one illustration. When critics like Reymond or Michael Horton or others try to make the connections they do between theonomy and coercive evils in church history, they miss the mark. It was precisely the lack of God’s law that allowed the state to run rampant in each case, and it was precisely the emphasis on the exclusive spiritual nature of the church’s authority with held the churches’ mouths shut from saying any differently, while everyone stood by watching the rape, murder, plunder, torture, and all manner of evil.
Yet another part of the problem here is that while Dabney and Reymond are correct on the limited point of the state not enforcing death penalties for heresy, blasphemy, etc., they have done so on the weakest, most faulty premises. They have provided no biblical, exegetical support for their positions. To appeal to the spiritual nature of the church creates all the problems so far discussed. But there’s more.
When you read Dabney’s lecture on religious liberty and church and state, to which Reymond refers, you will be treated to an exclusively rationalistic and pragmatic basis. In his 15-page essay, there are only seven Scripture references, and these are mere prooftexts. There is not a shred of exegetical work anywhere. So, if a person agreed with him, they would only have his rationalistic arguments for why. This leaves them unequipped when it comes to new instances of injustice and tyranny. Worse than unequipped, they are actually sharing the humanistic presuppositions that bring about the very tyrannies they would wish to end. So what standard is the church going to preach then?
One of the reasons I wrote The Bounds of Love was to provide what I saw to be a gaping whole in the exegetical work in this context. The New Testament system does provide for religious liberty, but if you do not approach it from a biblical, exegetical basis, you will build one more rationalistic tyranny. This was true for Dabney and the American slave culture. It was true for the modern statist tyranny, police state, fiat money, wars, etc., for which the Reformed churches a la Reymond and Horton either silence themselves or enjoin. It was true for the entire Constantinian tradition which was responsible for every persecution Reymond mentioned above.
It will always be true until the churches embrace the preaching of biblical law on social issues, and then start doing it. So, what we need, really, is far more work on exegesis. Instead, the height of prominence for Reformed theologians is to publish yet another thousand-page systematic theology which ignores almost entirely the doctrines of the family and the civil, “secular” spheres. This needs to change.
- Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008), 865–866. [↩]