Reconstructionist Theology – A Flaw in the Foundation of Dominion Theology
- It is a modern heresy that holds that the law of God has no meaning nor any binding force for man today. It is an aspect of the influence of humanistic and evolutionary thought on the church, and it posits an evolving, developing god. This “dispensational” god expressed himself in an earlier age, then later expressed himself by grace alone… But this is not the God of the Scripture, whose grace and law remain the same in every age, because He, as the sovereign and absolute lord, changes not, nor does He need to change.1
There are two key principles that direct the thought of Reconstructionist (Dominion) Theology: one is its understanding of the Law of God and the other is its eschatology. These two interwoven strands of compacted study and interpretation provide one of the most logically consistent theological world views of any in Church history. Unfortunately, the entire construct is built upon a misunderstanding of the role of the Law in redemption and in a confusion over its application to civil government.
At the advent of the Reformation, Luther’s great struggle over his own salvation led him to view the Law of God as having only a negative function: it revealed sin in contrast to God’s holiness, so that everyone would recognize his need of a Savior and come to repentance. Beyond that, the Law served little purpose and provided no hope for sanctification, except that it remained a constant reminder of the need for grace and mercy.
Calvin however saw a more positive function to the Law: it was good because it revealed God’s holy character and it became a guide for the character and actions of those now living under grace. The Law was an aid to proper moral conduct in the redeemed. Not that a man would be able to achieve righteousness by perfect obedience to the Law, but the Law serves as a guide to God’s will for his life, and the more he obeys it, the greater his conformity to God’s will.2
John Rousas Rushdoony is the grandfather of the modern Dominion movement in theology, and he follows more closely a Calvinist approach, except in a few key points. Rushdoony believes that the function of the Law is not only to reveal God’s holy and unchanging character, but is also the means of sanctification for the redeemed. And in that subtle distinction lies a world of difference. As revealed in the quote at the start of the article, a central tenet of the Dominionists’s view of the Law is that the Law retains a positive function. The Law reveals the holy and unchanging character of God throughout time and eternity. Because it reveals God’s essential will, it cannot be abrogated by grace. Grace functions as the means of restoration for those who sin. Similarly, Jesus Christ came to restore humanity to its original function and purpose, which is expressed in Genesis 1: 28:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
To say that the Law was something that God instituted as a reflection of his righteousness at one time, but now has dispensed with it in the era of the Church is to imply schizophrenia in God. For if God cannot change, how can the Law which reflects God’s character change?3 The Law’s purpose, states Rushdoony is serious and continuously applicable:
The purpose of Christ’s atoning work was to restore man to a position of covenant-keeping instead of covenant-breaking, to enable man to keep the law… The law thus has a position of centrality… in man’s redemption… and in man’s sanctification (in that man grows in grace as he grows in law-keeping, for the law is the way of sanctification)
Man has been reestablished into God’s original purpose and calling. Man’s justification is by the grace of God in Jesus Christ; man’s sanctification is by the means of the law of God.4
And this view of the role of the Law, as a reflection of the character of God, has many implications for the Church, the State, and the life of the individual believer.
Most of the conflicts with Dominion Theology within the Church at large are not over the foundational principle of the function of the Law for the redeemed, but in the application of the Law to society and government. It is only when Dominionists advocate that Old Testament case law should become the basis of civil law that the fur begins to fly. The Dominionists rightly point out that if we are being restored by Christ, and are being enabled by him to fulfill the purpose for which we were created, then we are also to fulfill the charge given to humanity in Genesis. We are to exercise “dominion” over the earth as His representatives now. This dominion is part of the expression of Christ’s redemptive work in us. If the Great Commission is to be believed, we are not only sent to evangelize the nations, but to “make disciples of all nations.. teaching them to obey all I have commanded you, ” (Matt. 28: 18:20). The Commission calls for the discipleship of nations to the Law of God. So, if God’s Kingdom and eternal government is being expressed through the Church, then that implies that we, as the Church, should cause the whole earth to come under the Lordship (dominion) of Jesus Christ, that the laws of the State, of human governments, should eventually conform to the Law of God as an expression of that dominion. Yet this dominion is not that the civil government should become under the control of the Church, as in a papal state, but in that the members of society be so transformed that the influence of the Church is established through the participation of the saints within the civil government.5
This view of the function of the Church is not that unusual. In fact, Calvin saw that one of the main functions of the Church was to direct and give guidance to the “secular” government, according to Ephesians 3:10 (” that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”), so that the government might conform to the will of God. He based his Geneva experiment on the very same principle of God’s unchanging character revealed both in the Old and New Testaments. There, Calvin drew from the theocracies of the OT as a possible example of the function of government in a Christian society. Indeed, if we look at the foundation of Western governments from that era, many used biblical laws as examples, guides, and case law for their legal systems.
Where there is a great divergence between traditional Calvinism and Dominion Theology. is over the hermeneutic of the types of the Law revealed in the Mosaic Covenant, specifically the Torah. The Dominionists do not have a completely developed method for distinguishing between ceremonial, civil, and moral law, and so they seem to regard much of the cultic, and civil law of the OT as an extension of the moral law and therefore still normative for today. Calvin on the other hand, saw a distinction in the OT record:
Calvin divided the law into three parts: the moral, the ceremonial and the judicial. The ceremonial law foreshadowed Christ and, although sacred and important for instruction, was fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection… The judicial law provided for justice and equity in the civil government of Israel but, like the ceremonial law, was peculiar to Israel and not normative for other peoples.6
To Calvin, only the moral law, or the unchanging revelation of the righteous character of God, was eternally applicable. The expression of that moral character might vary from culture to culture in case law.7 Yet we can see here that if one wishes to import the judicial law that governed Israel wholesale into contemporary civil government, a major conflict will develop over the interpretation of what is and what is not normative for today. It is in this very area where all disputes with Dominionists come to full expression. Dominionists expect that through massive revival whole societies will become converted and then restructure their governments to conform to biblical laws. This will happen as Christ establishes his dominion over all the earth through the Church, his earthly representatives, prior to His Coming Again.
This expectation brings us to the second pillar of Dominion thought: postmillennial eschatology. Much of modern Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism has been soundly premillennialist in its eschatology. The operative assumptions of premillennialism are that the world will continually degenerate prior to the return of Christ, as the world goes from bad to worse a large segment of the Church will be deceived and become apostate, the anti-Christ will reign in earthly government and the faithful remnant will either be Raptured out of the world before, during, or at the end of this reign of evil. The key attitude towards culture that develops out of this eschatology is that human societies and governments are not redeemable, will not conform to Christ’s will, but will grow increasingly wicked. Therefore, the call of Christians is to evangelize individuals, who, by God’s grace, are being plucked out of the fire and deceptions of the Last Days.
The problem with such an eschatology, the Dominionists rightly point out, is that it creates apathetic indifference and hopelessness, it vitiates confidence in evangelical outreach, and it causes an escapist mentality to develop in those who witness the evil in the world: Dispensational Premillennialists tend to look for a rapture out of the world before it gets too bad, rather than look to the world as a ripe mission field. In effect, a fatalism develops, because, in order for the prophecies of the end time to come to pass, the Church must be defeated by the anti-Christ (Rev. 13:7), and so it is inevitable that the missionary outreach of the Church will fail as increasing numbers turn to deception and wickedness and apostasy. Missionary endeavors are seen as a duty, but kind of rear guard action that only picks up a few stragglers while it is retreating. Evangelism is certainly not the ministry of a kingdom establishing army of God.8
Dominionists have made the most effective, scripturally based, challenge to the pervasive fatalism that has accompanied premillennialism. Taking key passages from Scripture, they point out the inconsistencies of believing in a defeated Church and a risen Lord who will not allow the gates of hell to overcome His Church (Mat. 16:18). To believe in the failure of the Church, is to grant the devil more power than Christ on the earth. Beginning with the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 and ending with the Great Commission of Matt. 28: 20, the Dominionists point out that there is no way the scriptures can be fulfilled if the Church becomes weak and powerless and fails to accomplish the task which Jesus set out for it. In order to bolster their arguments, Dominionists point to key passages of scripture which reveal the success of the Gospel and not its failure:
Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:31-33, RSV).
David Chilton points out that the Kingdom of God is destined for victory on the earth. The Kingdom has already arrived in Jesus the Resurrected King; it is progressively arriving as it is established in history and grows like leaven until it has affected every culture and government, and in the end it will be definitively established over the entire earth as Jesus reigns through the Church.9
The most profound attack upon premillennialism comes through its scripturally based interpretation of the book of The Revelation to St. John. Through historical research and an investigation into the symbolic use of numbers and visions throughout the Bible, Chilton, in his work, Days of Vengeance, makes a convincing argument that Revelation was written for the Church of that era, before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It spoke of God’s already present reign in heaven being manifested on earth, and it spoke of the near future when God’s judgment would be revealed against Israel for its rejection of Jesus and against Rome for its complicity in persecuting the Church. Chilton interprets the thousand year reign of Christ as a symbol of the fulfillment of God’s sovereign reign on the earth, but not a literal and exact 1,000 years.10 Providing an exegetical critique of the literal misunderstandings of Revelation by Dispensationalists, Dominionists are strong in their condemnation of modern projections of the prophecies of Revelation on today’s situation. They especially mock the hysteria, fear, and fatalism, that pills accompany these wild speculations.11
The scriptures used to support the Dominionist eschatology are numerous and the subject too expansive to consider in depth in this short evaluation. However, at the very least, the recovery of confidence in the Church’s ability to fulfill the Great Commission before the Return of Christ provides an antidote to the defeatism and despair that has accompanied much of modern day Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. This confidence of the Church’s role as applied to the establishment of dominion over the civil authorities, however, is not shared by many who are grateful for their more hopeful eschatology in general.
The Dominionists believe that Christ will come after the Kingdom has been established on the earth through world wide dissemination, conversion, and discipleship by the Church. This general conformity to the Law of God by the nations will be part of a “common grace” that elicits the cooperation of even unbelievers. After an indeterminate by lengthy period (symbolized by the 1,000 years), Christ will come to bring history to an end and to destroy death and the devil completely.12
No modern theological movement has mounted as an effective a biblical challenge to Dispensationalism as has Reconstructionism. Dominion Theology has consistently pointed out neglected passages of scripture which seem to support the idea of a victorious Church extending its influence in the world until the Second Coming of Christ (Mt 13:32-33; 16:18; 28:20; Isaiah 60: 1-3; ). Historic Calvinism has always had a more optimistic view of the role of the Church in the world than has Fundamentalism. Calvin saw the role of the Church as that of creating a theocracy, taking Ephesians 3:10 & Romans 8:31, as its guiding texts. Calvinism was primarily amillennial, in its eschatology; but Reconstructionism holds that the Church will establish world wide dominion and the earthly rule of Christ through the Church before the Second Coming. The greatest weakness of such a projection, however, is the identification of victory of the Church with human political systems. Knowing the propensity for human sinfulness and self deception and knowing the imperfect applications of theocracy throughout human history, we have no model of an effective theocratic rule which will truly model the Kingdom of God. The greatest potential for an anti-Christ is one who comes in the guise of savior, and it is well to remember that it was not the sinners and outcasts who crucified our Lord, but it was those in the guise of religious leaders, who claimed to be serving God’s righteous demands, who subjected Jesus to a political execution through the arm of the State. Religious leaders used the power of the State to enforce a program that seemed like God’s will but was not. Throughout history, this pattern has been repeated, in Rome, in London, in Geneva, and in Saxony, as the confusion of secular power with a divine mandate has resulted in the death of heretics and faithful witnesses alike with indiscriminate abandon.
While there is much to recommend the Theonomists, i.e., Rushdoony et al, I have several strong reservations:
1. The weakness of the Theonomic school is that they have no hermeneutical principle to determine General Equity (West. Confession); that is: they believe that the law is binding in general, but they have a hard time distinguishing between what is binding (as specific case law) and what is principle. For example: is the proscription against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk typological or is it binding today?
Some of the more extreme members of the school practice circumcision as a sign of the covenant; while some wear frontlets on their heads and tassels on their clothes.
Even more germane: in the O.T., the prescription for certain violations of the law, such as homosexuality and adultery, was death; however in 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11, esp. v. 11, the congregation is clearly made up of former homosexuals and adulterers. If the case law was applied, the whole congregation would have to be put to death! Rather, the N.T. injunction is to “forgive them as Christ has forgiven you.”
Theonomists have trouble, then, prescribing for civil law because of an inability to discover a valid principle of general equity which allows us to distinguish civil case law (which is culturally dependent) from unchanging moral and ecclesiastical law. I.e., should women be forced to wear a veil? Should adultery be punished by death?
2. Theonomists often fail to distinguish between civil and ecclesiastical law. The N. T. basically concerns itself with enforcement of ecclesiastical law (church discipline) and does not pretend to influence civil law. It presupposes the minority status of the church in the world, as leaven, and does not offer a code for secular or civil law.
The principle of church government: it is not the church’s responsibility to purge adultery out of this world by any means other than the preaching of the gospel ( 1 Cor. 5: 9-13). And 1 Cor. 6: 1-11 presupposes an unrighteous society and concedes one where the church cannot enforce civil practice. The church must recognize this while prescribing a higher standard of practice.
Peter and Paul viewed the Roman government, which was specifically non-Christian at the time of their written letters, as an instrument of God’s sovereign governing order on the earth. This attitude was held by the apostles at the very time in which they were being persecuted for their faith in many places. If the NT teaches that a non-Christian government can be part of God’s rule on the earth, then the attempt to establish a Christian Theocracy has no particular mandate from scripture itself; for whether the State acknowledges God or not, God still rules and Jesus is seated in heavenly places as a King over every name that is named.
Here is where traditional Calvinists and Dominionists collide. Calvinists are, by and large, Transformationists. Like Dominionists, they believe the Church can have a redemptive influence on fallen culture and government to the point that society may reflect general, biblical principles and laws. But Transformationists never equate the secular government, even a Christian government, with the Kingdom of God on earth. There remains a distinction between the temporal good of human instruments and the fulfillment of God’s eternal redemptive plan for the nations, which will only be consummated upon His Return.
Dominionists, however, argue that all culture is founded in God, is a gift of God, and has no independent existence apart from God, and therefore, in order for a society to function properly, it must align itself with God’s Laws. When it does so, it becomes part of the extension of the Kingdom of God on the earth, as Christ’s dominion is expressed as King of kingdoms. 13 This view strongly contrasts with a Catholic conception of “natural law,” or Calvin’s view of a common law of nations. Dominionists feel that since the creation is fallen, it cannot ever be the source of any norm, not even in civil law. Yet this assumption is counter to many of the attitudes of scripture towards the nations.
There are certain aspects of humanity, which though fallen, never escape the divine mandate of created nature. Sin is a marring of the essentially good creation, not the creation of a new being of total evil. For example, when God gave the command for humanity to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth,” (Gen. 1:28), that command and created nature has continued to be expressed throughout history by the redeemed and unredeemed alike. Sin does not undo created nature, it only perverts it. So what was created as good and holy, sexual desire and reproduction, becomes expressed in perverse ways, BUT the inward drive to fulfill the divine mandate is expressed nevertheless. It misses the mark and comes out all crooked, but we cannot escape our essential human nature. We only distort it. Redemption allows that nature to be expressed in its God ordained and holy ways, so that it fulfills its purpose in community.
Likewise, society is a natural expression of human beings created in the Image of God as social creatures. That nature cannot help but express itself in social relations, tribes, covenants, and laws. The laws are a function of created nature in as much as they are a function of a covenant relationship to God. They are inescapable expressions of human Being. These laws may or may not be close to God’s ideal Law, but it is quite obvious that throughout history, approximations of the divine laws have been established in diverse cultures, spread throughout every corner of the world. Yes, some of these societies have been more just than others, but there seems to be in God’s view the legitimacy of the existence of these laws and cultures apart from and preceding a direct revelation of God and His Covenant. In other words, they are a natural expression of what it means to be human, (Acts 17: 22-31).
Does a just human government require that extensive OT case law be enacted and exhaustively established? Indeed, we may learn much from such case laws that may help us form a more godly and humane government, but even the Jews of Paul’s day recognized that the Mosaic Covenant Laws were not binding on the Gentiles (Acts. 15:19-20).
3. Another objection is that Theonomy is a leaven that tends towards legalism and works-righteousness. It takes the focus off Christ as the fulfillment of righteousness and tends to make people focus on obedience as a principle which gives us legal right to stand before God: “it does an end run around Christ.” The problem is that the whole N. T. sees not legal obedience to the law as paramount, but the motivation and the intention of the heart. A Pharisee performs, while his heart has no love and is judgmental. The prostitute fails, yet her heart is full of mercy and so she fulfills the law. These instances illustrate the paradox of God’s righteousness.
I believe the whole reason for the confusion is a misunderstanding of sanctification on the part of the Theonomic school of thought.
The purpose of the law is to drive everyone to his knees to cry our for the mercy of God, because of sin and need; then to fulfill the general principle of the law, now inspired by love through love by union with Christ (Romans 8). For it is not outwards signs and ceremonial purity, but inward circumcision of the heart: the desire to please God, motivated by love that fulfills God’s righteousness. God recognizes in the beloved that the desire in us manifests itself imperfectly, but that is okay! For we have a new covenant written on our hearts, by the Spirit and by love, not by the letter. Failure to practice the law perfectly does not put us in condemnation or judgment; because God looks at the heart. Therefore, no outward code of laws imposed by the church or civil government will be able to create righteousness in us, and that is the primary weakness of Reconstructionism.
Paul says that the Law was a pedagogue to lead us to Christ. As such, the Mosaic Law was not binding on Gentiles, as the Apostles affirmed when they loosed Paul to preach the Gospel, requiring only that the Gentiles obey the instructions given to God by Noah (Acts 15:20). Reconstructionists confuse the Mosaic Law with eternal moral laws, and because they do not have a valid principle of discrimination between the two, they tend to seek to reestablish the former in the name of the latter.
With those reservations stated, I do believe that the scripture passages put forth by Dominionists do reveal a more positive role for the Church during the present and in the Last Days. Their symbolic interpretation of numerology in the book of Revelation makes sense in many ways and might help the Church cut its way through the Gordian Knot of speculations surrounding the Tribulation, Rapture, and the millennial reign of Christ. There is so much division in the Body of Christ over eschatology, and it was never a “proof” of orthodox faith (until recently by some groups). For us to attack each other over such speculations reveals more our lack of love and faithfulness to Christ than any advantage we might hope to gain by being right in our doctrines. Better to be found faithful in the Lord’s service when the Master returns than to argue in anger over things we do not know for certain.
1 The Institutes of Biblical Law, by John Rousas Rushdoony, The Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1973, p. 2.
2 Paul and the Law, by Frank Theilman, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 1994, pp. 20-21.
3 Rushdoony, op. cit. pp. 3-4.
5 Heaven on Earth?, The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology, by Bruce Barron, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 32.
6 Theilman, op.cit. p. 20.
7.Theological Perspectives on Theonomy Part 2:Nondispensational Responses to Theonomy,Robert P Lightner, Bibliotheca Sacra — April-June 1986, section 140 http://bible.org/
8 The Days of Vengeance, And Exposition of the Book of Revelation, by David Chilton, Dominion Press, Ft. Worth, 1987, pp. xx -xxi
9 Paradise Restored, A Biblical Theology of Dominion, by David Chilton, Dominion Press, Ft. Worth, 1985, pp. 72-74
10 Chilton, Vengeance, pp. 509-512.
11 Contra Mundum, No. 7 Spring 1993,God’s Covenant vs. Lindsey,by Curtis I. Crenshaw,Copyright 1993 Curtis Crenshaw: Review: Hal Lindsey & Biblical Prophesy, by C. van der Waal
12 Chilton, Paradise, pp. 223-226.
13 Rushdoony, op. cit., pp. 4-10.