PART 4: My own evaluation of the important contribution of theonomic postmillennialism
by Slabbert Le Cornu
“Abstract: Although the extreme form of Theonomism has only affected a small number of Reformed members in South Africa, it seems that Theonomist Postmillennialism has a greater underlying influence in the Reformed Churches in South Africa. General churchgoers in the Reformed Churches of South Africa generally confuse the Regulatory Principle (sic) with Theonomism and are uninformed about precisely what Theonomism is. Furthermore, signs of Theonomism as it developed in the USA are also visible in South Africa. Yet, there is great ignorance about the exact effect that Theonomism has on Reformed congregations in South Africa, especially regarding the eschatological views held by individual congregations.”
“The first one to plead his cause seems right, Until his neighbor comes and examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17)
Introduction to all 4 parts
The first quote above is the ‘abstract’ summary of dr. Morne Diedericks’s article, Critical evaluation of Theonomist eschatology, that were published in the the GKSA’s theological journal, In die Skriflig.
The second quote is from Proverbs 18:17, and is the goal of this and future articles.
There will be four parts in this response on ‘Critical evaluation of Theonomist eschatology’ article (abbreviation from now on: CETE).
Part 1: The unscholarly uninformed method of CETE and the two crucial main questions in this debate that are also of big importance for the reformed community in SA
Part 2: What does Theonomic Postmillennialism teach themselves using the sources CETE mentions in its ‘references’?
Part 3: Reformed Theonomic roots through history, also in South Africa.
Part 4: My own evaluation of the important contribution of theonomic postmillennialism
Please read this last part, part 4 in the context of part 1 to 3.
PART 4: My own evaluation of the important contribution of theonomic postmillennialism
I ended part 3 with these words:
In part IV I will end with some of own thoughts on theonomic postmillennialism, what I believe the unique semper reformanda contribution is of Theonomic ethics for our times, because of one of their very important foundational influences: “Van Tillian Apologetics”:
“There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy.” – Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, p. 134
In essence, theonomy is the the attempt to be the most consistent application of Van Til’s apologetic method to reformed ethics, especially socio-political ethics. Biblical Law, yes foundationally the Ten Commandments, but also the basic principles of the socio-political laws of Moses (explaining and applying the TC in detail, which is enduring for all times and not bound to Jewish/OT times), seen in the light of the NT and Christ’s coming (see part 3), should be the sole foundation of all societies laws.
“Van Til and the Origin of Christian Reconstruction
Rushdoony’s chance encounter with The New Modernism in a friend’s library precipitated his rapid adoption of the presuppositional perspective. After reading Van Til in March 1946, Rushdoony immediately began adopting Van Tillian themes and terminology in his letters. In a letter to a Presbyterian Mission official, Rushdoony offered the first clear exposition of Van Til’s ideas in his correspondence without mentioning Van Til: “I have been doing considerable studying since my coming here and am increasingly convinced that without a doubt our present day Biblical studies are grounded, not on sound scholarship but on philosophical presuppositions and are thus unrelated to fact.” Instead, Rushdoony explained that the zealous faithful look at scholarship with skepticism because it seems to deaden their encounter with God. Van Til’s ideas had clearly taken root in Rushdoony’s mind. From the first appearance of the term “presupposition” in his correspondence, to a clear rejection of the anti-intellectualism and the dispensational bent of contemporary fundamentalists, Rushdoony had seen the critical power of Van Til’s ideas.
By 1947 Rushdoony began encouraging his friends to read The New Modernism, and by the early 1950s Rushdoony embraced a systematic Reformed perspective based on Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. He became convinced that the only way Christians could renew American culture was through epistemological self-awareness. This insight was the origin of the concept of Christian Reconstruction and the work of the Chalcedon Foundation. From it he developed the notion that Christians can reconstruct the world by bringing “every thought captive” to the Word of God as embodied in the Bible. By developing this focus on epistemology, Rushdoony spent the 1950s authoring his first withering attacks on secular humanism and, most importantly, secular education. He worked tirelessly to popularize Van Til and sought to empower Christian educators and thinkers.
In a future issue of Faith for All of Life, I will take up where this story leaves off and provide readers the story of the long, productive friendship between Rushdoony and Van Til. Their collaboration emerged from their deep personal respect for each others’ ideas and their shared desire to develop Christian self-awareness as the prerequisite for cultural renewal. We’ll see how Rushdoony helped popularize and spread Van Til’s ideas to a wide audience and learn how the two men spent their lives as champions of one another’s work.”
See also these two helpful reviews of McVicar’s book, here and here, in answer to CETE’s evaluation, as an example on how McVicar, as a non-theonomist, in a scholarly objective work deals with the topic of christian reconstructionism/chalcedon/theonomy, as the one reviewer puts it, which helps us also how to study and evaluate other believer’s and/or christian movements:
“Writings on Christian Reconstruction over the past fifty years have swung between one of two extremes, both within and without Reformed circles. On the one end are those who are violently uncritical, who parrot the movement’s talking points as gospel. Strangely, a number of his followers, many of whom could never have met him, refer to him as “Rush,” as though he were a lifelong buddy. On the other are those whose criticisms are just as thoughtless who lead readers to fret that theonomists are about to overrun the church or even the world (for a brief survey of such writings by McVicar, see pages 215-216). This is why McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism is such an important book. It is a fair summary and analysis of the movement, taking in its remarkable aspects and its faults, without resorting to the triumphalism of the fanboy or the fear-mongering exemplified in the journalistic approaches of Michelle Goldberg or Chris Hedges. McVicar’s work lived up to and exceeded my expectations.”
“McVicar’s book is exemplary for its depth of analysis, setting its subject in his cultural context, with deft handling of the religious and political ethos of post-war America. It should be of great interest to those who, like I once did, got into Reconstruction through various avenues. Christian Reconstruction reveals the genius of Rushdoony, yet should warn the would-be theonomist of adhering to the movement wholeheartedly. It also serves as a rebuke to those whose hand-wringing over the theonomic overthrow of the church or society–the true nature of Rushdoony’s influence is both more and less than the fear-mongers realize, and as a failed movement, there is ultimately not much to fear. Students of American evangelicalism are also given an important look into the era with a book that has uniquely filled a gaping void. It will remain the standard socio-historical interpretation of Rushdoony for many years to come.”
But now back to Van Til’s influence on theonomy:
Van Til’s thought applied to pastoral theology and ethics
What Jay Adams, the ‘father of biblical counselling’ did in the field of pastoral theology and counseling, applying Van Til’s thoughts and teachings, i.e. no neutrality at all, the theonomist did in reformed ethics. Dr. Wes Bredenhof writes:
“Adams was following in the footsteps of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til argued that Reformed principles, drawn from Scripture, must be consistently applied in apologetics. Jay Adams took that approach and applied it to pastoral theology. The starting point and governing standard must always be the Word of God. Prior to Adams, this hadn’t been fully recognized in Christian counselling.”
The reformed theonomists, following Van Til’s consistency, calls for a much more consistent understanding and application of God’s laws for our day. In essence nothing new (see part 3), but they want biblical law to be the final standard and source of all law and societies, and not be only a part or mixture with humanistic natural law, and other western society law orders.
Gary North also writes (Dennison, 324):
“It was dr. van Til which made the students aware anew of the importance of pure doctrine. No fact is unrelated to God of the Bible, he declared. All truth, to understand correctly must be seen in the light of the revelation of the Creator and Savior. By God’s grace, we as His redeemed creatures, His thoughts behind Him. The Christian faith is not possibly the truth not, it’s the truth. All human philosophy and science is weighed and found to be too light. God sustains all things, including the
unbelievers. The believer and the unbeliever all have metaphysics in common, but epistemologically they have nothing in common. In our proclamation of God and His grace, we must present the Triune God as the only ground for our redemption from sin, and from our total life and think.”
In my own evaluation of the Christian Reconstructionist and/or theonomic movement I already given some of my own critique against Rushdoony and other concerns about CR thought (mostly against ‘some’ theonomists that do not appreciate the central role of church enough, and about Federal Version realted issues that are not very clear), but I also explained the major contribution of C. van Til as one of their foundational influences (see Die Kultuurbeskouing van RJ Rushdoony), irrespective of the fact that he was not a ‘Theonomist’ (with a a capital ‘T’) himself, and that he had some concerns about ‘Chalcedon and Rushdoony’, but also appreciation for Rushdoony (see Rushdoony’s book, By What Standard – an analysis of the philosophy of Cornelius van Til, here, read appendix 4 as a summary of the book. He states on page 1,2 of this appendix, “To a great measure the crisis of modern man, as well as the crisis of theology, can be traced to a lack of an adequate standard … The book of Job made me a Calvinist. The book of Job made clear to me by what standard we must understand the whole of life.” He then goes on the explain the answer from the book of Job in the rest of the appendix, a must read).
Gary de Mar (North, 1991: 64) writes about the further (more consistent) reformation the theonomist/recontstructionists were pleading for, based on historical calvinism:
“From Kuyper to Schaeffer, the same themes were stressed: (1) God is sovereign over all of life; (2) the Bible applies to every facet of society; (3) God’s law is the standard for righteousness and justice for men and nations; and (4) nowhere do we find a worked out system to learn how the implications of the reformed worldview are worked out in the particulars except in the writings of Christian Reconstructionist authors. If you have followed this odyssey from Kuyper to Schaeffer, you can see how easily it is to adopt the distinctives of Christian Reconstruction. Schaeffer, like those who proceeded him, understood where worldview Calvinism leads. He chose to skip over Reconstruction and head straight for civil disobedience. But there is no hope for a culture if resistance is its only option for change. What happens if the resisters win? What then? How should we then live? Schaeffer never told us in the details. The problem remained: Who would put wings on Calvinism’s world-and-life view airplane?”
In my own evaluation, I wrote in comment of these words by de Mar (p. 2):
“Herein lies, in my view, the importance and significance of Rushdoony’s (and other theonomists) contribution to Christianity. First, negatively (which he learned from Van Til), he wants to epistemologically self-conscious totally breaks with natural law theology, philosophy and the social contract ideas – which are in line of the Greek, Roman and Enlightenment Renaissance thinkers – which is today the foundation of the modern pluralistic humanist social order, and, secondly, positively, he wants a consistent, explicit biblical social order (with biblical content) set, grounded in the Reformed faith and view of life.
In the face of contemporary humanistic natural law democracy and worldview, which also accepted by many modern Calvinists, Rushdoony (and theonomy) calls for a return and further reformation of the authentic Reformational biblical theocratic Christianity, as we find it in our Reformational heritage of men like Augustine, Calvin, Knox, Rutherford, etc.”
It was therefore especially Van Til’s total and radical rejection of the idea of neutrality in any area of life between believer and unbeliever, and especially the rejection of “natural law” as the common ground between believers and unbeliever (hence also on cultural life), which led to some of his ‘followers’ began to ask the very important question:’ if natural history ideology does not must not form the basis of human thoughts and deeds [nor of cultural life], then, what should be the foundation of all of life? Some of his students ‘books’ titles reflect also this question:
– By What Standard [Rushdoony]
– By This Standard [Bahnsen]
– No Other Standard [Bahnsen]
Van Til’s apologetic and philosophical contribution – which is a head-on collision with the modern theological and philosophical thinking – unequivocally leads to the choice: “theonomy or autonomy “in the people’s total cultural life. However, he never really had the positive alternative, effect or content of his ‘theonomy’ established.
Gary North made it clear “you can not beat something with nothing”, and that was were Rushdoony and others works stepped in with the idea of a biblical social order (which of course everything has to do with our cultural life), based on the gospel and biblical law. The starting point was a rejection of the humanistic natural law ideas as the standard for life … In a sense, it can be said that Rushdoony and other theonomists wanted to rebuild further where Van Til rightly broke down humanistic thought and ideas.
My own conclusion of the theonomic-postmillennial debate, CETE’s evaluation of it, is the following:
Reformed Theonomic postmilliannialism in its basic teachings according to Scripture is not a ‘extreme’ danger to reformed thought, believers and churches, but a welcome contribution to further thought and studies in the field of ‘reformed ethics’, especially ‘reformed socio-political ethics’ that should be studied in their original sources by all. The last words of one of the reviewers of McVigar’s important book at the end of his review (Selbrede), regardless that he also disagrees with some of McVigar’s evaluation of RJR/CR, is the same that could be applied to the theonomic posmillennialism thought tank and authors, past and current … and future:
“No, the book is not perfect, but the author has made the next researcher’s job ten thousand times easier. The stables can now be cleaned out with a swish broom. If this volume isn’t the cause for appreciation on that ground alone, we have proven how dull of understanding we are. In the shadow of Dr. McVicar’s book, the world will no longer have a beam in its eye when it comes to R. J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. To then whine and complain about any motes in Dr. McVicar’s eye is to quibble. Buy it. Read it. Critique it. Learn from it. If you can do better, prove it.”
We can learn a lot from CR/Theonomy, while giving good critique where needed, especially against the over zealous tone of some of the theonomist advocates, yes, they have been fighting like Peter of old (cutting of ears) against the anti-theonomists, defending against some ‘extreme attacks’, and yes even fighting among themselves, some very sad stories about division even among family members … like it happens with other believers, families, churches, even reformed ones … since the Fall…. nothing new.
Like I mentioned in part 1, I cannot agree with many of the ‘battle rhetorics’ on both sides of the debate, but I can understand some of the reasons for the strong replies against all the anti-theonomic postmillennialism ignorant attacks against theonomic thought, as can be seen unfortunately in the ignorant one sided evaluation given in CETE in many of the quotes (see part 1).
But knowing that even a Calvin and Luther were no angels in rhetoric and debates themselves, and not trying to justify unloving debate and critique from both sides or any other side, we still have to focus on the original sources and writings and studies of theonomy and postmillinialism itself.
The ‘extreme’ dangers in terms of the law through at least reformed history, has always been, and still is legalism (salvation by law/politics) on the one side, and antinomianism (we have been freed of God’s law by Jesus in all aspects) on the other side … and theonomists are not legalists or antinomianists at all.
I see myself as a Belgic Confession article 25 theonomist (see part 3). In terms of eschatology I am convinced by many aspects of both postmillennialism and amillennialism, maybe I am a optimistic ammillennialist or a pessimistic postmillennialist? What ever the future holds by God’s sovereign good plan that works everything for our good, the victories and the losses, the crosses and the crowns (Rom. 8:28-39) through our personal lives and all of history, the church are always more than conquerors in Christ our Lord and Saviour. We must hold on to both the parables of the ‘wheat and the tares’ (Matt. 13:24-30) and the ‘mustard seed’ (Matt. 13:31-33) with all it teaches and all it applications for all of life and history (1 Kor. 10:31). Building on God’s sovereign grace, will and election, then from our side faith, repentance, obedience and calling in every area of life and thought is central, not the detail specifics of our eschatological charts.
But most of all, I hope all serious reformed brothers will study the original sources of reformed theonomists, like Bahnsen (ethics), Rushdoony (statism and education) and Gentry (postmillenialism) that all have a major contribution to these different areas of Christian thought and life, to help believers and churches to fulfill their callings in the 21st century, to the glory of God and service of our neighbours.
I want to conclude with the advice I have given readers at my blog here, when I replied to one of the more aggressive critics of theonomy, how to approach any debate, especially between reformed brothers, adapted for this article:
1. Most important, go read Calvin, Rushdoony and Bahnsen (and any other theologian) themselves, ad fontes (back to the sources!), not what others say about them, for or against, that is secondary sources that could be helpful, but not original.
2. One does not have to agree with all detail, to still learn a lot from a past or current theologian. I learn a lot from RS Clark and other Westminster Californian R2K theologians on many other topics, and recommend many of their works, while disagreeing with their R2K, non-literal 24 day creation views, etc. The same with many other (past and current) reformed theologians that are (in my view) much too anti-theocratic/theonomic, but I still love and respect these brothers to learn from them, and recommend them with some reservations. They still are my reformed brothers in the faith, once delivered, and I will fellowship with them. I do not go along with the ‘for or against theonomy’ sjibolet of some zealous warriors (from both sides!). The irony is, that many that warn against ‘extreme’ reformed brothers and groups, seem to be ‘extreme’ in their own rejections and evaluations of other reformed groups?
3. Dr. Clark has given recourses to read for being against our theonomy reformed brothers, you can read it there at his website. But don’t stop reading there…
4. Here are some other sources about the topic, also pro and against, and also some of my own writings (in Afrikaans) wherein I also give my own critiques about christian reconstructionism, etc.:
(Standard works on the topic: Theonomy in Christian Ethics; By This Standard; No Other Standard)
(A two page introduction and summary by Bahnsen)
The Bahnsen Project: all his lectures and preaching at sermon audio
(Standard works on the topic: Institutes of Biblical Law, vol. 1-3)
Adding: see the different sources to this 4 part study, from both sides of the debate.
Bahnsen, G.L., 1991, No other standard: Theonomy and its critics, Inst for Christian Economics, Tyler, TX.
Bahnsen, G.L., 2002, Theonomy in Christian ethics, 3rd edn., Covenant Media Press, Nacogdoches, TX.
Bos, F.L. (red.), 1957, Ware Christelijke Belijdenis der Nederlandse Kerken, Kok, Kampen.
Bucer, M. 1954, De Regno Christi, in the Library of Christian Classics, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1954. https://bit.ly/3dupgKU
De Mar, G., 2017, Theonomy: an extension of Calvinism’s judicial theology. https://americanvision.org/14290/theonomy-an-extension-of-calvinisms-judicial-theology/
Dennison, C.G. (ed.), 1986. , The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1936-1986, Philedelphia, OPC.
Diedericks, M., 2021, ‘Critical evaluation of Theonomist eschatology’, In die Skriflig 55(1), a2753. https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v55i1.2753
Du Plessis, J.A., 1917, Op die spore van Calvinisme in ons maatskaplike en staatkundige lewe, Veritas Vincet: Potchefstroom.
Du Plessis, L.J., 1941. Die Moderne Staat, Stellenbosch, Pro Ecclessia Drukkery.
Du Plessis, L.M., 1977, Calvyn oor die staat en die reg, Potchefstroom, PU vir CHO.
Feenstra, J.G. 1950. Onze Geloofsbelijdenis. Kampen, Kok. https://bit.ly/3rJfyN3
Ferguson, S., 1990, ‘An Assembly of Theonomists?’, in W.S. Barker & W.R. Godfrey (eds.), Theonomy, A reformed critique, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI.
Gillespie, G. 1846. Wholesome severity reconciled with Christian Liberty. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/26849/26849-h/26849-h.html
Gillespie, G. 1985. Aaron’s Rod Blossoming: or, the Divine Ordinance of Church Government Vindicated, Sprinkle Publications, Virginia, 1646 (reprint) https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A42757.0001.001?view=toc
Harris, R.L. 1979, “Theonomy in Christian Ethics: A Review of Greg L. Bahnsen’s Book”, in Presbuterion: Covenant Seminary Review 5:1 (Spring 1979).
Jonker, W. D. 1975. Die Bybel en Gods wil vir ons lewe, Kaapstad, NG Kerk-Uitgewers.
Junius, F., 2015, The Mosaic Polity (Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law), . Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. Kindle Edition.
Kline, M.A., 1977, ‘Review of Greg L. Bahnsen: Theonomy in Christian ethics’, The Craig Press xvii, 619–630.
Kline, M.A., 1978, Comments on a Old-New Error: A Review Article, in Westminster Theological Journal 41:1 (Fall 1978).
Le Cornu, S., 2000. Die Kultuurbeskouing van RJ Rushdoony. https://proregno.com/2010/02/01/verbondseminaar-2000-christus-en-kultuur/
McVicar, M.J., 2015, Christian reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.
North, G., 1991. Theonomy: An Informed Respone, ICE, Tyler, Texas.
Oosterhuis, J. (2020). Roman Dutch criminal law and Calvinism: Calvinist morality in De Criminibus (1644) of Antonius Matthaeus II. In A. Masferrer (Ed.), Criminal Law and Morality in the Age of Consent: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 67-95). Springer International Publishing. Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives on Law and Justice Vol. 84 https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-64163-4_4
Polman, A.D.R., 1958, Woord en Belijdenis: eenvoudige verklaring van de Nederlandse Geloofsbelijdenis, deel 2, T. Wever, Franeker.
Polyander, J. et. al, 1625/1964, Synopsis of Overzicht van de Zuiverste Theology. J. Boersema Drukkerij, Enschede. https://proregno.com/2020/05/12/polyander-oor-die-wet-van-god-stelling-49-51-geld-die-burgerlike-wette-van-israel-nog-vir-vandag-se-owerhede-en-onderdane/
Rushdoony, R.J., 1973, The institutes of biblical law, The Craig Press, Nutley, NJ.
Rutherford, S., 1649, A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Concience, London. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eebo;idno=A92140.0001.001
Schilder, K., 1977. Christelijke Religie: over de Nederlandse Geloofsbelijdenis. Kopiëerinrichting v.d. Berg, Kampen.
Schissel, S.M. (ed.), 2002. The Standard Bearer – A Festschrift for Greg. L. Bahnsen, Covenant Media Press, Texas.
Strevel, C.B., Theonomic Precedent in the Theology of John Calvin, in: The Standard Bearer – A Festschrift for Greg. L. Bahnsen (Texas: Covenant Media Press), p. 319-368. https://proregno.com/2020/07/15/theonomic-precedent-in-the-theology-of-john-calvin/
Van der Vyver, J.D., 1982. Inleiding tot die Regswetenskap, Butterworth, Durban.
Van Bruggen, J., 1965. Het Amen der Kerk: De Nederlandse Geloofsbelijdenis Toegelicht s: Oosterbaan & Lê Cointre N.V., Goes. https://bit.ly/3oERLfz