Ian Clary

Puritans and Theonomy, Reconsidered

In respect to what is on display in The Mission of God, Boot lacks the requisite skills of an historian, which concerns me as my own academic interests have addressed how evangelicals can use and abuse the past.[4] The purpose of this review is narrower than noting The Mission of God’s overall demerits.[5] Rather, I address one of Boot’s key arguments, which is that the puritans were the prototypes of the modern Theonomic or Christian Reconstructionist movement and that for one to be a true heir of the puritans one must be a Theonomist or Reconstructionist. I am not going to argue whether a case can be made for a relationship between Theonomy and puritanism, rather I am going to look at whether Boot successfully makes that case.[6]

Many Christians do not have a worked out political theology. We are aware of the importance of being good citizens, as Paul tells us in Romans 13, but it’s not until we find ourselves in the throes of political conflict that we are forced to work out what we believe about living faithfully in a civil society that is openly hostile to our faith. Certainly Covid-19 has caused the church to think more about our relationship to politics. As we’ve moved from mask mandates and restricted worship gatherings now to vaccine passports and possibly even vaccine taxes, Christians are struggling to understand what obedience to government really looks like. To make matters worse, the Canadian government has now legislated against basic Christian sexual ethics in such a way as to make all Christians, not just pastors and counselors, liable for any advice they give on sexual orientation or gender identity. In these troubled times we want answers, but often such answers don’t come pre-packaged, nor do they have the power of universal explanation, much as we’d like them to. The problems that we are facing are not easy to work through and require prudential study of the bible and the Christian tradition. As the church has been equipped over the past two thousand years with sources to help us think through these important matters, searching them out requires patience, nuance, and ability to rightly appropriate the past. We should be turning to the ancient church to understand how those Christians dealt with state persecution and martyrdom, we should look to the medieval church for help understanding the pros and cons of Christendom. Protestants especially have a wealth of resources at their disposal, especially in the Magisterial Reformers, to help us think about the two kingdoms, natural law, obedience or resistance to the magistrate.
One particularly rich stream of Protestantism that we could be drawing from is the English puritan tradition that, in all of its variety, has much to teach us about holding the government to account. The puritans had to wrestle through a civil war that culminated in regicide; surely they have something to say that’s worth hearing in our context. However, the puritan era, like any other in history, is subject to misinterpretation. A classic example is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) portrayal of them as narrow-minded bigots in The Scarlet Letter (1850). Confusion about the puritans by those who criticize them is one thing, but misunderstandings by those who sympathize with them is another. This often happens with those who approach the past looking for some kind of golden age that our own will never live up to. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), who more than anybody was responsible for the renewed interest in the puritans in the twentieth century, observed that many were tempted to theological ignorance by “using the Puritans and their writings as a substitute for thought.”[1] When we are approaching the past for our political theology, or anything else, we want to rightly appropriate it for use today. We must pursue truth, even if our pursuit of it leads us to unlikely conclusions. Failure at this level can have long-lasting consequences as our misunderstandings can blow up in our face. What is required is a patient, non-compromising, and irenic engagement with our culture that is informed by the bible, theology, and church history.
The Mission of God
The book under review attempts to engage culture effectively using the past, especially the puritans. In what follows I will evaluate whether The Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope for Society, is successful in its appropriation of puritanism as an antidote for today’s political ills. The book was first published in 2014 by Joseph Boot, a British apologist working in Canada, though my review is of the second edition of the book as it was published initially with the now defunct Canadian publisher Freedom Press International.[2] Boot opted to self-publish his second edition in 2016 with Ezra Press, an arm of his think tank, the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Boot is also a pastor at Westminster Chapel in Toronto, a church he founded, and is involved in Britain with the Wilberforce Academy and Christian Concern. Boot’s book garnered him a Doctor of Philosophy in Christian Intellectual Thought from Whitefield Theological Seminary in Lakeland, Florida. It is surprising that he would be awarded such a degree, as the book does not meet academic standards for a PhD.[3] In respect to what is on display in The Mission of God, Boot lacks the requisite skills of an historian, which concerns me as my own academic interests have addressed how evangelicals can use and abuse the past.[4]
The purpose of this review is narrower than noting The Mission of God’s overall demerits.[5] Rather, I address one of Boot’s key arguments, which is that the puritans were the prototypes of the modern Theonomic or Christian Reconstructionist movement and that for one to be a true heir of the puritans one must be a Theonomist or Reconstructionist. I am not going to argue whether a case can be made for a relationship between Theonomy and puritanism, rather I am going to look at whether Boot successfully makes that case.[6] In what follows I briefly describe Theonomy and Christian Reconstruction, generally survey some of the book’s aims, addressing his treatment of the puritans with my own criticisms interspersed throughout, and conclude with some general observations of the value of Boot’s book.[7]
Theonomy and Christian Reconstruction
Before engaging The Mission of God’s treatment of the puritans as Theonomists, it is worth describing Theonomy.[8] Christian Reconstruction was developed in the mid-twentieth century by the Armenian-American writer Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001), a missionary, activist, author, and founder of the Chalcedon Foundation.[9] The movement gained traction and controversy through its popularization by the apologist Greg L. Bahnsen (1948-1995) and economist Gary North. It is to North that we owe the term “Christian Reconstruction,” which he first used in 1974 for his Journal of Christian Reconstruction. Bahnsen was the most serious Reconstructionist and his works Theonomy and Christian Ethics and By This Standard are erudite treatments of the major themes addressed by Theonomy, particularly the relation of the Old Testament to Christian ethics.[10] North is the late Rushdoony’s son-in-law, though the two had an acrimonious split that saw North move from Vallecito, California, where the Chalcedon Foundation is located, to Tyler, Texas, that became the home of his Geneva Ministries and Institute for Christian Economics.[11] The movement largely dissolved after the North-Rushdoony split and the death of Bahnsen, with thinkers like Douglas Wilson, Peter Leithart, and James B. Jordan, who had varying degrees of relationships to the movement, leaving the fold.[12] Though a number of definitions of Theonomy have been articulated by exponents, for the sake of this review, I will go with Jordan’s. He argued that the movement is concerned with advocating the sovereignty of God under three headings: postmillennial eschatology, the presuppositional apologetics developed by Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), and the abiding character of Old Testament law (hence, Theonomy).[13] Theonomy is sometimes described as “Dominion Theology,”[14] that relates to their victorious view of postmillennialism, where they argue that society will be Christianized at the return of Christ. Relatedly, presuppositionalism makes the claim that all knowledge must explicitly accept the lordship of Jesus Christ for it to be true knowledge.[15] When Christ returns, society will be governed by the Mosaic law. Hence, these three distinctives are the Theonomists’ way of advocating for the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ over all things.
With this general overview of Theonomy and Reconstructionism in mind, we can turn to evaluating Boot’s book. In light of what has been said in defining the movement, it should be observed that Boot seems to be concerned with the earlier brand of Reconstruction as developed by Rushdoony. Little mention is made of the other Theonomists like North, Jordan, or Chilton. They appear in the bibliography, but not in the index to the book. Bahnsen also does not appear in the index, though his work is in both the bibliography and endnotes with some frequency.
The Purpose of The Mission of God
Before engaging Boot’s claims about puritanism it would also help to explain the aim of The Mission of God, as best as possible for a book that is quite large and that tackles a variety of subjects. My focus is to summarize aspects of the book that pertain to puritanism – it would take me far afield to get into specifics of missiological debates, questions of exclusivism versus inclusivism, Canadian politics, apologetic method, holocaust denial, etc.
Missiology is Boot’s overarching concern: “[P]art of my motivation in writing this study is to help stimulate and encourage critical reflection on the biblical missiology that did so much to shape our liberties and free institutions that are eroding before our very eyes.”[16] This is a noble aim, one that all Christians should think seriously about. He argues that the church needs a full-orbed gospel of the kingdom in order to combat societal decay, a gospel exemplified by the puritans and Theonomists. Boot is not content with a gospel that is merely about saving lost souls, he wants an evangelism that is rooted in societal change.[17] The gospel is about all of life and thus has cultural implications for the lordship of Christ. With this most Christians should agree, generally speaking. It’s Boot’s argument that to remedy this weakness evangelicalism needs an injection of the Theonomic understanding of the kingdom of God. This will help it grow in cultural effectiveness as we encounter new challenges and problems.
The Mission of God and Puritanism
Boot is critical of those who only read puritan spirituality but who do not take their view of the law seriously. Rhetorically, he asks: “Is it not disingenuous to claim an affinity for the Puritans, delighting in the vitality of their prayers and piety whilst ignoring its source—their vision of God’s covenant and reign in history?” He goes on to argue, “There is no accurate understanding of John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, John Owen, John Elliot [sic], John Cotton or Oliver Cromwell to be had, whilst ignoring their view of Christ’s present reign at God’s right hand as King of kings and Lord of lords, to whom all men are subject, under whose law all men are held to account (whether king or commoner), and by whose gospel alone men can find redemption and restoration.”[18] He points to the “contemporary evangelical indifference” to puritanism as a reason that the Theonomists, whom he refers to as the puritans’ “most consistent modern heirs,” have been denigrated in the church.[19] Boot argues that the Theonomists have been censured because “they have taken up and revived key elements in our Puritan heritage that the rest of the modern evangelical community has chosen to forget or ignore.”[20] Those key elements include the puritan view of the law. What is unhelpful about this quote is that Boot does not cite those who love the puritans but ignore those key elements. Even worse, Boot does not take into account recent studies of the puritan view of the law, pre-eminent among them are Ernest Kevan’s (1903-1965) two books The Grace of Law: A Study of Puritan Theology and The Moral Law, which are important for our understanding of the period. In them, Kevan draws heavily from Anthony Burgess (1600-1663) and his view of the law, a puritan who, incidentally, does not appear in Boot’s book.[21] Most significantly, neither book makes the case that Theonomy is the consistent puritan view of the law. As we will see below, the puritan view of the law does not fit so nicely with the arguments of The Mission of God.
Boot regularly–and rightly– outlines the decline of the West due to its abandonment of Christian faith. For Boot, church and society need to go back and recapture the holistic view of the puritans who applied biblical law to all areas of life, from economics, education, politics, and family. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is, for Boot, the preeminent example of this application of the Christian faith to all of life by a political leader who honors God’s law. Cromwell is the quintessential puritan who, in Boot’s words, is “generally seen as the most important Puritan statesman in European history.”[22] It was Cromwell and the other puritans who laid the foundations of the freedoms that we enjoy in the modern West, and to abandon them is to abandon the gains they won for us. Again, it is to the Theonomists that we must turn to recapture the puritan view of life, where a total reconstruction of society will start with the family as the first stage of renewal and then move on to other spheres of life like church and state.[23]
One philosophical culprit that Boot takes aim at throughout the book is dualism, that he describes as the contrast between religion and other aspects of life. The Reformation broke down the secular/sacred divide, rendering all of life as intrinsically religious. Boot locates dualism in Greek thought that has dogged the church since its inception, particularly with heretics like Marcion (ca. 110-160) who gets regular mention.[24] We have, since the puritan era, been mired in a “progressive re-Hellenization” that marks a return to dualism. What Christianity is called to do is return to its non-dualistic, Old Testament heritage expressed by the puritans.[25] Instead, the church is mired in what he would describe as versions of the Marcionite heresy, one of which is premillennialism, especially the dispensationalism of “J. N. Darby and C. I. Schofield [sic].”[26] Their dualism is between the soul—the focus of premillennial evangelism strategies—and the body that can be disregarded in the pursuit of spiritual aims. Premillennialists are retreatists, but what the church needs is the puritan eschatology of postmillennialism, that is non-dualistic, optimistic, and victorious. This eschatological vision comports with how a Christianized society can be reconstructed according to God’s law as laid out in the Old Testament and recaptured at the Reformation. It was the Enlightenment that marked the unraveling of God’s law in the West, and the dualism that insidiously encroaches on the church witnessing a return to ancient Marcionism.[27]
Alongside premillennialism, Boot also argues that certain Reformed “two kingdoms” views are likewise a form of Marcionite dualism.[28] In a section titled “Cultural Cowardice,” Boot takes theologian Michael S. Horton to task for advocating a kind of cultural retreat. Though he devotes fifteen pages to discussing Horton, Boot does not deal with the broad scope of Horton’s work, instead he focuses on a single article he published in the 9Marks journal, a popular periodical issued by 9Marks Ministries.[29] Boot claims that Horton’s two kingdoms theology “seems to be that of double sovereignty or two kingdoms (with similarities to the nature/grace dualism of scholastic philosophy).”[30] Due to his sharp law-gospel distinction, that Boot asserts is “not a Reformed perspective,” Horton’s two kingdoms theology has “neo-Marcionite tendencies” that “lead also to an antinomian tone in his writing.”[31] The two kingdoms “leaves space for [Horton’s] ‘secular callings’ (religiously neutral spheres) and ‘common grace’ (or natural theology/law) as areas where a specifically biblical and Christian approach to life is completely unnecessary, from education, to arts, politics and science.” This “strange dualism” is due to Horton’s view of Christ’s absence from the earth.[32] Boot’s critiques of premillennialism and two kingdoms theology—both of which are guilty of the heresy of Marcion—explain why the puritans and Theonomists need to be rediscovered.
As part of the rejection of the lordship of Christ, Boot argues correctly that we live in an historically rootless society that will lead to eventual collapse as our “barbarian” culture “ceases to value and identify with the past” and thus will have “no ability to navigate forward responsibly.”[33] While Boot is right to argue for the importance of history as a way of steering our culture back to some form of sanity, the irony is that his reading of history is often anachronistic and unhelpful. Nevertheless, he argues that a Christian view of history must be grounded in the doctrines of creation and providence, as argued biblically, in Augustine, and in the puritans. Such views have been eclipsed with negative consequences for law, politics, and the church. Christians are “humanistic and antinomian” in their views of history, some even being captivated by occultist “positive thinking” views, or the retreatism of Christians who want to escape the calamities of creaturely affairs.[34] Here, Boot is right to note the historical amnesia of the church today, especially in evangelicalism, but his own historiography does not push the church forward in a way that will help us make good use of the past. If anything, Boot is an example of how not to use history in service of the church.
Much more could be said of The Mission of God but space constraints are already being pushed. In sum, the thrust of Boot’s argument is to demonstrate the collapse of society and the church due to a Hellenized and Enlightenment-influence rejection of the law of God as espoused by the Reformers and the puritans. The church suffers from a dualism that results in a cultural retreat and a tacit betrayal of the lordship of Christ over all domains of life. Boot’s remedy to rebuild society and the church is to recapture the puritan spirit of law exemplified by the Theonomists.
Defining Puritanism
Boot’s book raises many questions. If his argument is that we need a return to a theonomic society and that the puritans can help light the path toward that end, the first question to ask is if his account of the puritans is actually correct. It is not. Of the importance of defining puritanism, historian Richard L. Greaves (1938-2004) said, “The debate has been salutary, for without an accurate understanding of these terms it is extremely difficult to engage in constructive dialogue about any of the facets of Puritan history and the broader historical pageant of which it is an integral part.”[35] In 2010 I published, “Hot Protestants: A Taxonomy of English Puritanism,” where I traced the history of the interpretation of puritanism and, noting the difficulty of trying to define it, came up with a broad definition. I argued that the puritan movement developed at the end of the Elizabethan Settlement and roughly ended with the death of John Howe (1630-1705).[36] My definition noted that puritanism was not solely a Calvinistic movement, that though it was Protestant, it was indebted to catholic thought, and was grounded in experiential piety.
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