By / Sep 24

What is the relationship of Old Testament laws to the American government? How ought Christians respond to the decline of cultural influence? What are the ways that Christians exercise power within the public square? These are some of the questions that animate Christian Reconstructionists, a group that likely is less well known than broader denominational or theological identities such as Baptist, Catholic, evangelical, or Reformed. Crawford Gribben sheds light on this group in his book, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest. While the ERLC does not subscribe to the tenets of Christian Reconstructionism, it is important to understand this numerically small but influentially growing movement, as Gribben’s work shows. 

In Gribben’s recent study of the movement, particularly in the community centered around Moscow, Idaho, he found that these evangelical Christians were continually navigating the tension between resisting the wider culture around them because of its rejection of Christian values and hopefully expecting that there would be a cultural renewal and return to God’s laws and standards, though likely not in their lifetime. Though a numerically small group, these Reformed evangelicals have shown themselves to be adept at marshalling soft influence through avenues such as publishing, homeschooling curriculum, and the founding of a Christian liberal arts college. Gribben’s study is an excellent introduction to the lived realities of this movement, its history, and the ways that theological principles have practical outputs in the project of cultural renewal. 

Gribben, a professor of religious history at Queen’s University Belfast, was kind enough to answer a few questions related to the movement and his scholarship. 

Your book is a study of Christian Reconstructionists, a particular group of Reformed evangelicals rooted in the writing of R.J. Rushdoony, and more recently pastor Douglas Wilson. What are the distinctives of this movement? 

Christian Reconstruction is the name of the social theory that an Armenian-American Presbyterian minister, R.J. Rushdoony, began to develop in the late 1950s. As its descriptor suggests, it’s a social theory that argues that modern societies should be reorganized in terms of biblical law. While the movement is varied, its advocates tend to argue that the judicial laws in the Mosaic covenant, as a reflection of the “general equity” of the moral law, as the Westminster Confession puts it, should be adopted by modern states. This position is often described as “theonomy.” But Reconstructionists don’t just argue that these laws should be adopted by modern states — they also expect that these laws will be adopted by modern states. Their confidence that modern states will be reconstructed according to biblical law reflects their widespread commitment to “postmillennialism” — the expectation that the preaching of the gospel in this age will result in extraordinary revivals, to the extent that, before the return of Christ, the global population will in large part be regarded as Christian. 

These ideas — “theonomy” and “postmillennialism” — might seem strange, even outlandish, to modern evangelicals. But these claims, and others like them, were made by reformers and Puritans. In fact, many of the colonies that came to make up the states of New England were led by ministers and theologians who were committed to these views. What makes Christian Reconstruction so distinctive within the broader cultures of evangelicalism is that its arguments are being made in a religious landscape that has largely abandoned claims that were once normative within American Protestantism to embrace instead the principled pluralism of the American constitutional tradition.

The plan proposed by the community in the American Redoubt (Idaho, Montana, Wyomin, and the easter portions of Washington and Oregon) shares some similarity to that of others, such as Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Is this just a wider dissatisfaction with American culture, or is there something unique going on with those who are moving to the Redoubt?

Yes, there are similarities between the kinds of people who are moving into the Redoubt and those who are attracted to Dreher’s Benedict Option. In fact, Dreher has explained that he had intended to include in his book a chapter on the Moscow, Idaho, church that is led by Doug Wilson, until some controversial decisions made by congregational leaders relating to the pastoral care of a sexual offender changed his mind. But there are also some important differences between the Reconstructionists and Benedict Option Christians. Most importantly, while both groups are withdrawing to a large extent from mainstream society, the Reconstructionists do so with much greater confidence they are building communities that will survive the crisis in American culture and that will emerge to create, entirely organically, the institutions that will hold together the new — and newly Christian — United States. I think it’s also important to note that the Benedict Option idea appeals to Catholic and Orthodox groups. Christian Reconstructionists tend to be emphatically protestant (though their protestant credentials have been questioned by some of their critics, especially in relation to the “federal vision” theology with which Wilson has in the past been associated).

In the book, you emphasize the role that the group’s theology plays, particularly their postmillennial eschatology. Why does this cause them to react differently than other evangelicals to a shifting culture? 

Well, as Wilson put it in one of our conversations, it’s so much easier to play when you know you’re on the winning team. While lots of larger evangelical communities are losing ground — at least in the sense of shrinking membership — the Moscow, Idaho, community is pushing forward with some very ambitious plans. They make no secret of their intention to make Moscow a Christian town — nor of their expectation that the world will be converted to Christ. I think this expectation provides this community with a very distinctive confidence. While other groups of evangelicals are scanning the headlines for the signs of the times, or are persuading each other not to “polish the brass on a sinking ship,” as some premillennial critics of social action put it, the Moscow Christians and their Reconstructionist fellow travelers are developing concrete plans to survive and resist what they perceive to be an extraordinary moral collapse. And they’ve been very successful. 

In Moscow, they have established a classical Christian school — one of the founding institutions of a network of similar schools, whose conference was addressed in 2019 by Senator Ben Sasse — as well as a high quality liberal arts college and music conservatory. Members of the congregations associated with this community run very successful businesses, including the publishing house that does most to promote the group’s ideas. Overall, they’ve created an ecosystem that publicizes their ideas, that encourages migration into the area, that supports new arrivals with employment opportunities, school and other educational ventures — and this kind of growth is, of course, positioning the community as the fulfilment of its own prophetic expectations. Success breeds success — and so it will be interesting to see how Wilson’s new Amazon talk-show, “Man Rampant,” contributes to this positive feedback loop. 

There is a consistent theme of the tension between rhetoric and theology, most clearly in the renewed interest in the theology of the “lesser magistrate.” How does this work itself out for the congregants who are not actively looking to take up arms against the government, but do exist in a culture where that is possible and sensationalized (as with the fiction novels you mention)?

That’s an interesting question. Very few of the people we met while doing fieldwork for this book were interested in talking about taking up arms against the government – and none of those who did were attending Wilson’s church. I think a lot of the discussion about “resistance” is largely rhetorical. The old protestant doctrine of the “lesser magistrate” is certainly important in these circles. But the small number of Christian Reconstructionists who have turned toward violence — like Paul Jennings Hill — have been consistently denounced by thought leaders in the movement. All of the people we met within the Moscow congregation were living what might in other circumstances be regarded as fairly ordinary lives — working, shopping, going to church, and so on. The more militia-orientated people tended to prefer to keep themselves to themselves.

For many of the Reconstructionists, it is through cultural renewal, rather than political or violent action, that America can be saved. This is, as you note, one of the problems that Rushdoony had with the Religious Right in the 70s and 80s: they focused on political power rather than spiritual regeneration. How has the modern movement tried to focus on this goal of cultural renewal? What is their hope in the long term for America?

As I said before, members of the Christian Reconstruction movement work for and expect to contribute to the conversion of the United States. And that word “conversion” is key. The emphasis in their writing and speaking is not on coercing citizens into a Christian republic — despite the claims of their critics. Instead, Reconstructionists argue that as individuals are converted, they will influence their families for Christ; as families are converted, they will influence their neighborhoods for Christ; and so on. They expect a bottom-up transformation of American society, not any kind of transformation imposed from the top-down. That’s why these believers tend to avoid any participation in politics — even at a local level. While they might enjoy talking about the reconstruction of the legal system, or tax codes, they are often kept busy enough building Christian families, running businesses that reflect their Christian commitments, and going to church. In fact, you might say that in day-to-day life most of these believers are indistinguishable from their evangelical neighbors — except that, when they pray “thy kingdom come,” they expect to see it happen before the return of Christ, and they anticipate that their everyday lives will make a real contribution to that end.

Much of the book is built around the community in the American Redoubt, and particularly in Moscow, Idaho. Even the magazine, Credenda Agenda, as you note promulgated old ideas and new books, “but most of all it sold the community that was gathering around [Doug] Wilson’s ministry” (115). What is the role of the community for this movement, and how does that shape their activity?

The idea of community is really at the heart of this project, I think. From the 1990s, Credenda Agenda  — the magazine that did most to promote the group’s ideas — was never about one man. Instead, it brought together a range of writers who were capable of producing smart, satirical, and theologically sophisticated arguments. The letters page of each issue showed that readers found what they read attractive. They liked the idea of being part of that kind of community. And the institutions that this group established were designed to reinforce that community — a K-12 classical Christian school, then a liberal arts college, and so on — all taking their place in the positive feedback loop that I mentioned before. Online testimonies from some of the most recent migrants into the area still emphasize that this idea of community — maybe even ideal of community — is what drew them to Moscow. 

This group isn’t numerically large, and you even state that they don’t exist inside the religious mainstream. However, they are becoming increasingly influential. How so?

You’re right — the community isn’t especially large — in fact it’s tiny by comparison with many megachurches, even in Idaho. But this group projects its soft power very deliberately and very effectively. Wilson’s most recent venture — the Amazon talk-show called “Man Rampant” — seems to be surviving on that platform. Wilson has a nose for publicity. He co-authored a book with Christopher Hitchens and participated in a hymn sing in Moscow that resulted in arrests and attention on Twitter from President Trump. There is a real sense of crisis in American culture at the moment. This group’s influence is growing because they know how to articulate what might be at stake in that crisis, and how to present a response to that crisis that turns it into a single moment in the great sweep of victory by which the “kingdoms of the world become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And that’s why their influence is only likely to grow.

By / Apr 25

The first time I read the entire Bible I was struck by the different titles used of God between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament usually described God as “Lord,” whereas the New described him as “Father.” The difference seemed to affirm an old stereotype: In the Old Testament, God is a stern lawgiver prone to wrathful judgment; in the New, he’s a tender parent eager to forgive and save. I knew that the difference was false and that God is unchanging, but a casual survey of Scripture seemed to confirm the dichotomy.

A new perspective on the same God

Then, I read Isaiah 63:15-16: “Look down from heaven and see, from your lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us. But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

After hundreds of pages of Old Testament history, law, and prophecy, this passage leapt out at me. It seemed like a new piece of revelation, a sudden change or addition to Scripture. I almost couldn’t believe it was in the Old Testament. It appeared to be wholly new in the context of God’s covenant with Israel.

Here was the God of Sinai, the God of the Law, the God of the temple and sacrifice, of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, the God that willed the fall of Jerusalem, being described as a tender and compassionate Father to his people. It is as if Isaiah, recognizing the fearful wrath and majesty of the Almighty, was divinely inspired to describe a new way of relating to God, lest his people be too scared to approach him.

Progressive revelation and God as “Father”

Years later I learned the doctrine of progressive revelation. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, writes, “At each stage in redemptive history, the things that God had revealed were for his people for that time, and they were to study, believe, and obey those things. With further progress in the history of redemption, more of God’s words were added, recording and interpreting that history.”

God is unchanging, but his revelation of himself happens over time. In times past, before the canon of Scripture was complete, God did not provide his people with all the revelation we have of him today. For example, before the Incarnation, God did not reveal the person of Jesus, the nature of the Trinity, the distinction between the first and second comings of the Messiah, or the exact means of the Atonement. Those pieces of revelation came later.

I was right to notice that God is not frequently revealed as “Father” in the Old Testament (although there are a handful of other passages aside from Isaiah 63). That does not mean God was not Father to Israel, just that God did not desire to emphasize his role as Father early in his redemptive plan. Why not?

Three purposes for “Father” passages

What does the Fatherhood of God add to our understanding of him that would make it fit more naturally within the redemptive-historical context of the New Testament rather than the Old?  What does the Fatherhood of God mean? The passages that describe God as Father in the Old Testament seem to serve three purposes.

1. They emphasize God’s compassion and tenderness toward his people.  

Moses opens up the book of Deuteronomy (1:31) by reminding Israel of how God fought for them and delivered them from Egypt: “There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” We read in Psalm 103:13-14, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”

In Jeremiah 31:20, God asks, “‘Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,’ declares the LORD.” And in Malachi 3:17, God declares, “‘On the day when I act,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.’”

2. They emphasize God’s authority and the rightfulness of his judgment against his disobedient children.

In Deuteronomy 14:1, while Moses is delivering the law to the nation of Israel, he declares, “You are the children of the LORD your God.” God continues, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God.” The connection between the law and the Fatherhood of God is this: Israel was to obey God and treat herself “holy to the LORD” because that is the obedience a child owes to his father.

The Prophets echo the theme of God’s authority and justice as pictured in his Fatherhood. Isaiah opens his book with a thundering denunciation in 1:2, “Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.’” Similarly, in Malachi 1:6 we read, “’A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?’ says the LORD Almighty.”

These two themes culminate and combine in a few powerful passages about God’s authority and tenderness, his justice and mercy, his wrath and his love together. Solomon writes in Proverbs 3:11-12, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” God’s judgment against his people’s sin is an expression of his love.  A father who simply ignores his son’s disobedience is not loving his son; he is raising a spoiled and wild boy. Furthermore, Isaiah acknowledges God’s fatherly authority yet appeals to his fatherly mercy in 63:15–17 and 64:7–9.

3. They point to the Messiah.

Passages in 2 Samuel 7, Psalms 2 and 89, and Isaiah 9 speak of God as Father, not of Israel, but of the ruler of Israel. God is Father to a particular individual, a descendent of King David who rules and saves God’s people. “And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isa. 9:6-7). The New Testament will shed more light on how the sonship of the Messiah relates to the sonship of Israel.

When collected together, these passages cover most of the Old Testament references to God as Father and his people as his children (See Exo. 4:22, Isa. 45:10-12, Hosea 1:9-11; 11:1-2, 10 for other passages). There are hardly two dozen fatherhood references in the entirety of the Old Testament (20 by my count) that only look like a large body of Scripture when you aren’t looking at the context in which they occur. By contrast, there are literally hundreds of fatherhood references in the New Testament, which is much shorter.

This, then, is the picture of his fatherhood that God wanted his people to have during that moment in redemptive history. As their father, he had special tender mercy for them, but he also expected honor and obedience from them. The people of God are welcomed to approach their God not only as creator, lawgiver, and judge, but as Father. By contrast to the other religions of the ancient world, the relationship was personal, not contractual; affectionate, not businesslike.

And so it is with us today. Through faith Christ, the Lawgiver and Judge becomes our Father and helps us to understand the mystery that the Old Testament was whispering all along.

By / Apr 13

If you know anything about the TV show Parks & Rec, you know that Ron Swanson loves bacon. In a brief clip, he attempts to order all the bacon and eggs at a diner. Concerned the server will misunderstand him, he says “Wait, I’m worried what you just heard was, ‘Give me a lot of bacon and eggs.’ What I said was, ‘give me all the bacon and eggs you have.’ Do you understand?”

Ron Swanson’s concern that his order would be misunderstood reminds me of a similar concern I have about evangelical approaches to Israel’s conquest of Canaan. There’s a danger that we reinterpret God’s call to Israel to “completely destroy” the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 13 and 20 as hyperbole for simply defeating their enemies.

In his order at the diner, Ron Swanson wanted to be clear that he demanded all the bacon and eggs. In his call for Israel to war against the Canaanites, God wanted to be clear that he demanded the life of all of them. If anyone had a heartbeat, whether soldier or man or woman or child or livestock, it had to be stopped.

Why is it that evangelicals often seem to misunderstand God’s command to “show no mercy” to the Canaanites as simply an instruction to “kill a lot of bad guys?” Could it be that the reason we often sanitize the violence of the Old Testament is because we don’t understand why it is necessary to the biblical storyline?

When we understand the four reasons God commands violence in the Old Testament, it frees us to rightly understand Israel’s conquest of Canaan.

1. The violence of the Old Testament preserves the messianic bloodline. The seed of the woman; the offspring of Abraham; the prophet like Moses; the greater Joshua; the son of David: in all these ways, God promises to maintain a lineage that would bring forth a messiah. The violent scenes of the Old Testament show us the way that God preserves the promise of messianic deliverance that drives the Old Testament.

In other words, if the enemies of God ultimately defeat the people of God, then the promise of God will fail. If God doesn’t protect his people from their enemies, then the line of Jesus is cut off, and there is no salvation. If not for the violence of the Old Testament, then, you and I are headed toward hell right now.

2. The violence of the Old Testament purifies the people of God. A primary reason that God calls his people to defeat his enemies is so that the surrounding nations do not lead Israel astray through idolatry and sin. God knows that his people will join others in sin if they do not beat them first.

This call to purity is precisely why we see a pattern emerge in the violence of the Old Testament. While God fights for his people in their faithful obedience, he fights against his unfaithful people in their sinful rebellion. Victory for the pure; defeat for the impure. Exodus for the faithful; exile for the unfaithful. It’s not until the perfect life of Christ that a new Israel comes as the only faithful One of God and achieves the ultimate crown of victory.

3. The violence of the Old Testament prophesies the judgment of God. As God’s people conquer God’s enemies in victory, it declares to the surrounding nations that Yahweh is the rightful ruler of the universe. And when God’s enemies conquer God’s people in defeat, it declares to Israel that rebellion, even by God’s people, is worthy of judgment.

The violence of the Old Testament signals a real-time foretaste of an end times reality for everyone: those who reject the King will receive his wrath. The Old Testament enemies of God received the military judgment of God in conquest. All those who are outside of Christ will receive the spiritual judgment of God in hell.

4. The violence of the Old Testament patterns the atonement of Christ. In the cross and resurrection, we see the convergence of the Old Testament’s holy war pattern. Jesus is the conquering messiah who God fights for in victory because of his faithful obedience. But Jesus is also the substitutionary wrath-bearer who God fights against in judgment because he takes on our sinful rebellion.

At salvation, we are united to Christ so that he grants us the victory we don’t deserve and bears the penalty we owe. Covered by the righteousness of his shed blood, God sees Christians as his faithful people who he enables to find lasting victory in spiritual warfare by the power of the Spirit.

Ron Swanson had a reason to be concerned the server at the diner would misunderstand his order for all the bacon and eggs: it seems unnecessary and even outrageous that anyone would demand that much food. There’s the same risk that we will misunderstand the violence of the Old Testament: it seems unnecessary and even outrageous that God would demand that much conquest.

But if we understand the violence of the Old Testament in light of the unfolding kingdom central to the biblical narrative, it will allow us to recognize how this bloodshed preserves God’s messiah, purifies God’s people, prophesies God’s judgment and patterns Christ’s atonement—providing us with the hope we all desperately long for.