A Brief History of Theonomy

An excellent email from James Jordan to the Wrightsaid list:

The problem with interacting with this is that “theonomist” refers to three different groups of people. Bahnsen had a very airtight logical system that was almost completely devoid of any covenant-historical approach to the Bible. Rushdoony was looser, and was dealing with practical rather than theoretical questions.

Persons like myself, and under my influence Gary North, were very much covenant-historical from day one. I got my Schilder and Gaffin in the early 1970s at the same time I was reading all of Rushdoony’s works. What we all had in common, of course, was being “Whole Bible Christians” as against your evangelical “New Testament Christian.” (There is, of course, no such thing as the New Testament, any more than there is such a thing as the Pentateuch or Second Samuel. As far as the Bible is concerned, it is all just Scripture, one long book, one long story in several acts.) And we all understood that Jesus had set up a kingdom (Christendom) not an ideology (Christianity). That as one nation had been baptized (in Red Sea and Jordan) and discipled (under Divine law), so the great commission says all nations are to be baptized and discipled. We tried to hear the great commission in that way, which is the way the disciples heard it: theocratically. And we all took Psalm 119 seriously.

But, IMO, having put their hand to the plough, both the Bahnsenians and the Rushdoonians pulled back. They got a lot more of the Bible than evangelicals get, because they took the social principles of the law seriously. But when the rest of us continued on into the symbolic and ritual parts of the Bible, and the narrative, transformative history of the Bible, they renounced us.

The “theonomists” (and I never liked the word and did not use it, but there you are!) were the ONLY people in Christendom who actually believed 2 Timothy 3:16-17. They believed that ALL Scripture (including, say, Deuteronomy) is profitable for instruction in ALL of life (including, say, statecraft). They were the only people in Christendom who were not afraid of the so-called Old Testament.

Times are better now. But in the 1970s & 80s thinking about political and social issues with an open Bible was scandalous. I think the bottom line on post-recons and NTW is just that all of us post-recons are Total Bible people. We think Bible first — we don’t read it through the lens of the Westminster Confession. (The WCF plays the same idolatrous mediatorial role in conservative presbyterianism that the saints play in Medieval catholicism.) We are not Bibliophobic. So, we find lots of cool stuff in NTW — stuff that in no way conflicts with historic Reformation thought, btw — and so we chow down on it.

But we also chow down on Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Rene Girard, and lots of others. Another aspect of this is that Recons were/are catholic. Most of us had mixed ecclesiastical backgrounds (Bahnsen didn’t, and he was not very catholic). Rushdoony had been both presbyterian and episcopalian. My background included Lutheranism and a lot of other stuff, including Roman Catholic grammar school. So, it was natural for us to be Bible-first Christians. Which meant that we did not care a fig for denominationalism. Plus, believing in paedocommunion meant that there was no denomination that would really want us.

Anyway, a whole lot of the prejudice against NTW in conservative presbyterianism is there simply because Wright is not “one of us.” He’s an Anglican. The world is following after him, when it should be following after us presbyterians. Plus, how could his work be any good, since it was “not invented here”? And, becoming at home in the so-called OT also plays a role here as well, I think. The “NT” cannot stand alone. If you pull out the OT foundation, you put something else as foundational. The NT cannot be read alone; it demands a context. Hence, “NT Christians” adopt all kinds of trash from prevailing philosophies. They do it unwittingly, but they do it. That’s a lot of where denominationalism comes from. For instance, your average “NT evangelical” thinks that the great commission says, “Go and make disciples in the nations, baptizing those individuals….” Which is not what it says, and not what the apostles heard. But your “NT” Christian does not even perceive what it actually says; he reads right past it. He reads it in a context of rationalistic individualism, which is the philosophy he has substituted for the OT. So, having an OT background tends to evaporate denominational prejudice.

But finally, only the Theonomists had the guts, the cojones, to look straight into the face of hard questions and think seriously about them. Only a theonomist would have the guts to suggest that maybe (maybe, I say) Charlemagne was right to march the Franks through the river. Only a theonomist would have to guts to ask if maybe the death penalty for homosexual acts is a good idea. After a while, being a theonomist, you get used to thinking the unthinkable, and you get very used to people screaming at you for daring to do so. So, then you read NTW. He says some new things. Yawn. People are screaming at him for daring to say some new things. Yawn. Been there. Theonomists have been lied about, called names, and excluded from positions a whole lot more than NTW has. Back when I was in those circles, it amazed me that the people writing to criticize it never, ever, dealt fairly and accurately with what theonomists were saying. Well, now we see the same thing with NTW. All of which is to say, I guess, that post-recons are not going to be upset by NTW, and because NTW is putting out good stuff exegetically, post-recons are naturally going to read and appreciate him. That’s probably way more than you asked for. But I had to assume that lots of younger people on this list did not know what you were asking about.

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