Saturday, September 24, 2011

Neuhaus 20 years ago on how theonomistic right is like the progressive left

The final consummation of history in the return of Christ and the establishment of his rule in the right ordering of all things is an article of faith for all orthodox Christians. For most Christians now and in the past two millennia, millennialism itself has not been that important. That is, the biblical references to a future millennium were viewed as an ambiguous metaphor for the eternal rule of Christ. From time to time, however, and usually along the margins of orthodoxy, there were Christians determined to cut through the ambiguity and read “the signs of the times” (Matthew 16) with greater specificity. The Puritan tradition, including such worthies as Jonathan Edwards, arguably America's greatest theologian, inclined toward a species of postmillennialism in which thoughtful people dared to believe that God was working out his purpose for the ages in the events to which they were party. The liberal Social Gospel movement that emerged in the latter part of the last century was emphatically postmillennial, and the afterglow of that movement is still discernible in sectors of oldline Protestantism. The kingdom is now, if we have the nerve for it, and when it is established Christ will be welcomed into his own. [emphasis added] Nor should we forget that species of Evangelicalism found on the left of the political spectrum (e.g., the Sojourners group) that is also convinced that there is in fact a “biblical politics” that can and should be implemented now by radically committed Christians.

Of course contemporary theonomists, who wish to think of themselves as conservative, resist the comparison with the liberal Social Gospel and with left-wing Evangelicals, not to mention liberation theology. But the analogies are inescapable. The policy specifics may be dramatically different, but the theological rationale is strikingly similar. [emphasis added] The different thing in theonomy is not its postmillennialism but its understanding of biblical law. Acts 15 describes the convening of what might be described as the first ecumenical council in order to answer the “Judaizers” among the early Christians who insisted that non-Jewish believers must be circumcised and instructed to keep the law of Moses, or else they would not be saved. That position was rejected by the apostles, who decided, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden that these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” The Judaizers of that time claimed that the gentiles, in order to be saved, must enter Judaism under Mosaic law; the theonomists of today claim that Mosaic law has departed Judaism in order to reconstruct, and thus save, the nations under the rule of “the saints.”

Now as a Protestant I differ in a few spots with where Neuhaus landed but as an amillenial partial preterist I agree with his critique of theonomistic thought and with the historical tendencies of postmillenialists in particular. A conservative theonomist in the 20th century and a liberal Protestant social gospel advocate from the 19th century both draw on postmillenialism as a rationale. Now of course they will cite that they have substantial differences on other theological issues and that would be true, but both sorts of Christians derive motivation from the conviction that they are called by God by dint of being the right kind of Christian to change the world for Jesus and, as it were, hand the world to Jesus at the end of the Age on a silver platter.

I'm in my later thirties and I have begun to notice that a lot of doctrinally conservative Christians my age and younger (not attempting to pick numbers here) have steadily leaned more toward a kind of libertarian position. They are in some ways less concerned about finding ways to compel the Christianisation of society than to check religious persecution or social injustice. As old school American conservative Protestants have been clucking, younger evangelicals have been embracing all this nonsense about "social justice" which is just old liberalism.

Neuhaus noted all the way back two decades ago that prominent Protestants such as John MacArthur and Charles Colson opposed Reconstructionist theology. If anyone was in a position to have some idea how the use of actual political power corrupts you'd think Colson would be the one, and his disagreement with Reconstructionism would seem relevant if not for a systematic theological perspective than for a "been there and done that" perspective. As Neuhaus put it, the failures of all attempts at a kind of Christian-engineered society of the sort Protestants have embraced should be instructive. J. I. Packer, in his lengthy presentation on the history of the Puritans available through Reformed Theological Seminary, said that the whole enterprise of the Puritans as a campaign to reform and improve the Anglican church was an endless failure (my paraphrase). That failure, however, spoke to the salience of their concerns.

There are movements within Christianity and Christian history that may be more important because they continually fail to obtain the earthly goals their advocates continually seek than because those goals were reached. As far as that goes (perhaps not far) I consider it useful to look at the other Calvinists of the past and consider how frequently "we" fail to accomplish the things many of our associates consider good things to pursue.

Our theological pedigree in Calvinism and fashioning a society is full of a lot of failures. If God providentially permits that all "our" experiments in creating a more Christian society have ended in abject failure you'd think that "we" would become more cautious in assuming a theological rationale for a social and cultural experiment which has led to failure so many times in the past. If theological conservatives think this means one is acquiescing to "liberalism" that may just mean that theonomistic conservative doesn't realize he (and it's almost always a "he" here) has a heart in common with the social gospel liberal who thinks that he's entitled to and obligated to on the basis of "good" theology to make a "Christian society" that reflects his own likeness. It's easy for a conservative to say that a liberal is pursuing an over-realized eschatological ideal while overlooking this same error in himself. He thinks the real difference is those dividing points of "liberal" and "conservative" but the way he treats his neighbor may show in the long run that the core eschatological error which is a risk inherent in postmillenialism isn't any different.

One of the biggest early scuffles at Mars Hill was after Driscoll became a Calvinist (he wasn't one until somewhere between 2001-2002 as best I can recall. Well, as the church became young, restless and semi-Reformed a lot of guys about Mark's age began to get the idea that to be "really" Reformed meant embracing theonomistic ideas. Some guys began to parrot the bromides about pessimillenialism (which has always been idiotic). Other guys began to argue that it was the really Reformed thing to do. Driscoll and the other pastors repeatedly rejected these ideas. Driscoll, per Driscoll, began to think of members who were previously vital to the life of the church as being dead weight because of these kinds of theological differences. That was Mark being the kind of jerk he frequently is (and probably will be until he dies). But having said that, I agreed with (and still agree with) he decision to reject theonomistic theology and the political implications of that. Driscoll and I may not agree with my proposal that the problem with the theonomistic movement and the ostentatious Religious Right is that they're unwittingly repeating all the motivational errors inherent in the old Religious Left but we would agree that the theonomistic campaign has been proven to fail so many times in the last millenia that it is best to avoid that whole line of pursuit. Our prayer is to the Father that His kingdom would come and His will be done. We are not the ones who usher in the Kingdom. When Jesus said the kingdom comes without our careful observation this should be seen as a corrective both to dispensationalist premillenials as well as theonomistic postmillenials.


chris e said...

Do you follow DG Hart's blog at all, he has been posting over the last little while along similar lines:

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I hadn't heard about DG Hart's blog before. I've read Drew G. I. Hart's blog a bit but not that Darryl Hart one. Thanks for the link.