We can all find problems with everyone’s “local church.” Some are even pretty bad. But reviewing the Vision Forum debacle one thing kept coming up in my mind: a local church in network (presbytery?) with other churches can minimize the danger of cult figures hijacking the show. This is especially true with “start-up” denominations, for while having the form of presbyterial government, they are often run by a Pope-figure. By contrast, established, perhaps even “bourgeoisie” networks generally have a way of stifling wacky ideas that come up (and this is a good thing!). I’ve sat in Presbytery meetings where word got out that such and such church is starting to follow the teachings of a certain Federal Vision guru and they were summarily investigated. (I don’t know what happened in the end result, but since this was an OPC presbytery it’s not hard to imagine how they handled it, and good for them).
This reminds me of an excellent tape by David Chilton on the Ecclesiastical Abuse of the Tyler People. I realize the article is by John Robbins, but it’s accurate enough. If anyone is interested in the audio, let me know.
I am deliberately late to the Doug Phillips debacle. My interest is from another angle: for better or worse, the Phillips axis (Vision Forum, Morecraft, and to a lesser extent American Vision) represented the last coherent front for Christian Reconstruction (which is not the same thing as theonomy). When Bahnsen and Rushdoony passed from the scene, there really wasn’t any scholarly impetus. Yes, there was Gentry, but has he published in the last six years (and I think I know why he hasn’t)? Has Gary Demar written on something besides partial preterism and America’s Christian heritage?
Someone will say, “Yeah, well what have you written?” Nothing yet. I do have a book on Eastern Orthodoxy in the works. I also plan to write one on Covenantal Premillennialism. I have an essay on premillennial monarchy in outline form.
The Christian Reconstruction world has been marked by scandals but has proven fairly resilient, mostly due to competent scholars and debaters. (This is less known, but there was another CR leader who while not committing adultery, pressed the envelope in that direction and was disciplined by his presbytery. This happened while I was in seminary). Vision Forum, for one, was highly successful in marketing. I mean honestly, who wouldn’t want to buy half of those products? I still want one of those crossbows! But in light of recent scandals, VF has shut down. With the exception of American Vision, Christian Reconstruction has no more outlets and it won’t make a comeback. VF’s scandals are far beyond the founder flirting with a young nanny. Evidence is coming up of financial fraud. Now I don’t particularly cry too hard that the IRS got stiffed. Couldn’t have happened to a better group of people, but these kind of repercussions can be devastating. I am glad I cut loose of CR six years ago.
It’s not so much that young thinkers don’t want to be associated with “immoral” scandals (and the details are fuzzy, beyond the “not knowing in a biblical sense” admission). That’s bad enough but sadly, fairly common. If the financial allegations are true, then legal issues arise and it becomes plutonium. Young Van Tillians are simply going to go to Westminster Seminary. Theonomy’s day is over. While the Obama administration is seeming to vindicate everything Gary North has said, it appears to be too little too late.
I suppose the inevitable question, one loaded with irony, is that given Christian Reconstruction’s commitment to the bible and postmillennialism, how come the movement fractured immediately and society is not reconstructed? Before we get into the individual faults of the men and camps, it is important to first note perhaps why they were prone to fracturing.
The easiest answer is that the American Reformed church didn’t want that kind of thinking within it. I don’t mean the more wacky elements of CR. Let’s stick with a mainstream figure like Greg Bahnsen. Bahnsen stayed within the communion of the local Presbyterian church. Bahnsen never associated himself within the wilder elements of CR. Yet he was probably hated the most by so-called Reformed Institutions. I think they correctly realized that if Bahnsen’s views on civil government are correct, then much of the Presbyterian mindset today needs to be revamped. It was understood, however, that remaining good Americans was preferable. Theonomy was blackballed. It was never officially condemned, but still..
As a result, many CR leaders knew they wouldn’t be welcomed in the presbyteries. So they reasoned: too bad for the presbyteries! For all the problems and limitations in local presbyteries, they do keep individuals from going off the deep end. We will soon see why.
- Rushdoony: On one hand it’s a good t hing that Rushdoony’s (and by the way, it is spelled “Rushdoony.” A number of moderators on Puritanboard adamantly insisted it was spelled “Rushdooney,” the typing of the cover of his books notwithstanding) errors are so easy to see. Being egregious errors and out in the open, they are fairly easy to avoid. His main errors are the dietary laws, ecclesiology, and shallow readings of some Reformed sources. I won’t bother refuting the dietary laws. I suspect his personal experiences drove his ecclesiology. I don’t know the whole story, though Gary North has documented it here. Evidently he got angry at some obviously wrong practices of a part of the OPC and separated himself from church bodies for the greater part of a decade.A bit more minor issue but one more prevalent is that many young CRs began their study of theology by beginning with Rushdoony. As a result, many simply parroted his slogans without really understanding all the theology and philosophy behind it. Their grasp of Reformed theology was very tenuous beyond the basics. Once they came across sharp Anchorite apologists, they were toast. They didn’t have the strong foundation in Turretin, Hodge, and Owen that older men had. Had they begun with the latter and had a decent foundation, then they could have approached Rushdoony with the sense of applying some of his legitimate insights.Finally, people who really follow Rushdoony have a hard time accepting any criticism of the man.
- Was the home-church movement an inevitable spin off from Rushdoony? That he endorsed something like it is clear, but most Reformed people understand he is wrong on that point. I think one of the dangers of the home church movement is that apart from any presbyterial oversight, there is nothing stopping the members from embodying outrageous positions.
- Gary North: Gary North held the high ground until 2,000. His Y2K debacle lost him his credibility. Others have pointed out his refusal to condemn the Federal Vision, though truth be told, would it have mattered? Most people stopped listening to him in 2,000. Would his condemning FV in 2003 have changed anything? It’s a shame that he got tied in with y2K predictions and Federal Vision associations. Many of his key arguments were never refuted (or even addressed). I have in mind the judicial sanctions in history argument. It’s ultimately why I can’t hold to historic premillennialism in the long run (see future post).Another of his problems would be the Tyler connection. This really isn’t that big a problem compared to Rushdoony. Tyler had the bizarre mixture of independent congregationalism and quasi-sacerdotal episcopalianism. Aside from some caustic and hilarious rhetoric aimed at the Institutional Reformed, there isn’t much to accuse him of.
- Was Federal Vision inevitable? This is hard to answer. If you read Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics carefully, you will notice how mainstream and normal his method and footnotes are. He is citing standard P&R and evangelical textbooks on hermeneutics and the Sermon on the Mount. All of this is wildly at odds with the later Federal Visionists. This would explain why Federal Vision advocates at least two generations afterwards rejected Bahnsen (some even ridiculed him). Jim Jordan very clearly rejected theonomy. So to say that Bahnsen led to the Federal Vision is a classic instance of the correlation = causation fallacy.
Gary North notes that CR split into two camps: Tyler Ecclesiasticalism and Rushdoony’s Home Church Patriarchalism (those theonomists remaining faithful to the local church and presbytery held to a theoretical theonomy, but kept it at that. The exception would be the micro-Presbyterians like Joe Morecraft).