Michael Horton, the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary (California) since 1998, Editor-in-Chief of Modern Reformation magazine, and President and host of the syndicated radio broadcast, The White Horse Inn, describes Reconstructionists as “zealous postmillennialists” who “are in danger of turning law into gospel” and “confusing salvation and earthly utopia.” He then charges Reconstructionists with defining the “kingdom as geopolitical.”1 Not one of these charges has any basis in fact. Similar charges have been answered so many times in numerous books and newsletters that I am not going to take the time to answer them here.2 It is obvious that Horton has not read much Reconstructionist literature.
Horton would place himself squarely within the Reformed tradition. He would claim to follow the views of John Calvin, J.A. Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield. Using only a single example, let us compare Horton’s views with those of A.A. Hodge, Professor in Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary from 1877 until his death in 1886. Hodge made the case that “the kingdom of God on earth is not confined to the mere ecclesiastical sphere, but aims at absolute universality, and extends its supreme reign over every department of human life.”3
The implications of such a methodology are obvious: “It follows that it is the duty of every loyal subject to endeavour to bring all human society, social and political, as well as ecclesiastical, into obedience to its law of righteousness.”4 In addition, he had no problem teaching that there are political implications to the preaching and application of the gospel. Consider the following:
It is our duty, as far as lies in our power, immediately to organize human society and all its institutions and organs upon a distinctively Christian basis. Indifference or impartiality here between the law of the kingdom and the law of the world, or of its prince, the devil, is utter treason to the King of Righteousness. The Bible, the great statute‑book of the kingdom, explicitly lays down principles which, when candidly applied, will regulate the action of every human being in all relations. There can be no compromise. The King said, with regard to all descriptions of moral agents in all spheres of activity, “He that is not with me is against me.” If the national life in general is organized upon non‑Christian principles, the churches which are embraced within the universal assimilating power of that nation will not long be able to preserve their integrity.5
Hodge calls the Bible the “great statute‑book of the kingdom.” In effect, he is a “biblicist” who believes the Bible should be used as a textbook on social theory. This is Christian Reconstruction in a nutshell! Horton rejects all of this. He claims that “there are two kings and two kingdoms, each ruling a distinct sphere…. In the kingdom of culture, what Augustine called ‘the city of man,’ there are rulers, there are laws, there are customs which are regulated by human wisdom.”6 What is the foundation for human wisdom in a strictly secular materialistic worldview driven by the scientific enterprise of evolution?
On the subject of law, was Hodge “in danger of turning law into gospel” when he wrote that “this law … demands instant and absolute obedience, not only from all classes of Christians but also in every sphere of human life equally”?7 There is no room for lawlessness in Hodge’s view, either for the church or the world. The fact that evangelicals are debating whether homosexuality is a sin is an indication that licentiousness has been turned into gospel. There’s always a danger of turning law into gospel. Horton rightly criticizes the hypocrisy of evangelicalism because while many preach against lawlessness many still practice it. For proof, he writes that “evangelical Christians are just as likely to embrace life‑styles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self‑centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general. The statistics are neck and neck.”8 On the one hand, Horton criticizes Christians who call for a more consistent application of the whole law of God. On the other hand, he laments that evangelicals are as lawless as the world.
Horton is confused.
The confusion persists when Horton states that a person’s position on abortion “is not an article of Christian faith.” While Horton agrees that abortion is “savage inhumanity” that must be ended, it “is not in the Apostle’s Creed.”9 While I’m a great fan of the Apostles’ Creed, it is not the Bible. Furthermore, it is not a complete statement of orthodoxy. The doctrine of verbal inspiration is not in the Apostles’ Creed, and neither is salvation by grace. Horton believes making a person’s position on abortion a test of orthodoxy would mean substituting “the Gospel for [a] moral … test.”10
A person’s profession of faith is measured by his deeds, like the way a good surgeon is known by how well he performs in the operating room. James uses language that causes many Protestants discomfort: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Much of my disagreement over what Horton writes stems from an inability to understand what he is trying to say. His arguments are not well reasoned. For example, he castigates Christians who “politicize the gospel,” and at the same time, he champions a few of his own pet social causes. I don’t get it.
The irony is that Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary. Machen was a limited government advocate. He spoke before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, and the House Committee on Education on February 25, 1926, in opposition to a federal department of education.
You can read the transcript of Machen’s testimony here. Machen’s testimony was an attack on Caesar and his kingdom. Horton surely has read Machen’s testimony. It’s a model for Christian political activism, but it doesn’t seem to come out in Horton’s writings.
“Beginning in 1923,” Gary North writes, “Machen sounded the rallying cry of a frontal assault against a well-entrenched and well-funded enemy: the American Establishment — not just the religious Establishment, which today is a comparatively minor affair in the United States, but the American Establishment in the broadest sense.” North lays out some of Machen’s views relative to social and political themes:
Machen was a believer in limited civil government, non-intervention in foreign policy (one view he shared with [William Jennings] Bryan), and private charities rather than tax-financed institutions of coercive wealth redistribution. He opposed Prohibition as an unwarranted incursion into people’s freedom of action by the civil government.11 He testified before a joint Congressional committee in 1926 against the proposed U.S. Department of Education.12 He opposed the proposed amendment to the Constitution, the child labor amendment of 1935.13 He opposed military conscription.14
He opposed the New Deal’s Social Security legislation and its anti-gold standard monetary policy, which, he said, undermined contracts.15 He opposed Bible reading or the teaching of morality in public schools, since he recognized that the teachers were predominantly atheistic, deistic, or liberal in their theological opinions.16 Presumably, he would have opposed prayer in public school classrooms. This was a departure from the opinion held by A. A. Hodge in the 1880’s.17 Hodge could still claim that the United States was a Christian nation, and that its public schools should reflect this fact. By Machen’s day, such a claim was less believable. But he did not publicly reject tax-financed public education.18 His Scottish common sense rationalism did allow for some degree of common ground in education, which alone might legitimize tax-funded schools.
Since the days of Hodge and Machen, the antithesis has become more discernable. Government schools and their funding apparatus have become the engine that’s leading to a nearly secularized society, and overreaching federal government, and a court that has no fixed moral standard.
- Michael Scott Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 191. [↩]
- If you would like a description of Reconstructionist principles, see Gary North and Gary DeMar, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), Gary DeMar and Peter J. Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity: A Biblical Response to Dave Hunt (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1988), and Gary DeMar, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians, rev. ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2010). [↩]
- Archibald A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1990), 283. [↩]
- Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 283. Emphasis added. Hodge, too, was a “zealous postmillennialist.” ((A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1891), 568–71. [↩]
- Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 283–284. [↩]
- Michael Scott Horton, “Beyond Culture Wars,” Modern Reformation (May/June 1993), 2. [↩]
- Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 280. [↩]
- Horton, “Beyond Culture Wars,” 3. [↩]
- Horton, “Beyond Culture Wars,” 2. [↩]
- Horton, “Beyond Culture Wars,” 2. [↩]
- Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1954), 387. [↩]
- Proposed Department of Education, Congress of the United States, Senate Committee on Education and Labor, House Committee on Education (Feb. 25, 1926), 95-108; reprinted in Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State, edited by John W. Robbins (Jefferson, Maryland: Trinity Foundation, 1987), ch. 7. Cf. Machen, “Shall We Have a Federal Department of Education?” The Woman Patriot (Feb. 15, 1926); reprinted in Machen, Education, ch. 6. [↩]
- Machen, “A Debate About the Child Labor Amendment,” The Banner (Jan. 4, 1935), 15-16. [↩]
- Machen, “A Debate About the Child Labor Amendment,” The Banner (Jan. 4, 1935), 15. [↩]
- “Machen to Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” New York Herald Tribune (Oct. 2, 1935); cited in D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 143. [↩]
- Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School” (1933); reprinted in Machen, Education, ch. 5. [↩]
- A. A. Hodge, “Religion in the Public Schools,” New Princeton Review, 3 (1887); reprinted in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 4 (Summer 1977). [↩]
- Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 14. [↩]