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Box Theology

In box theology, the church claims one small office among hundreds for Christianity. All the rest of the building is given over to the jurisdiction of the state and the sciences. One area after another is deemed nonreligious and is surrendered.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony
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Chalcedon Position Paper No. 39, April 1983

In the presidential address to the Economic History Association September 12, 1980, Richard A. Easterlin commented on the fact that the modern era began with the rejection of the medieval church (and, one can add, Christianity), and “humanity ultimately took up a new ‘religion of knowledge,’ whose churches are the schools and universities of the world, whose priests are its teachers, and whose creed is belief in science and the power of rational inquiry, and in the ultimate capacity of humanity to shape its own destiny” (Journal of Economic History, vol. 41, no. 1 [March 1981], p. 17). We can add that the great agency of this new religion is the modern humanistic state. If a religion is not catholic, universal in its faith, jurisdiction, and scope, it will quickly fail. Religion by its very nature either speaks to all of life, or it in time speaks to none. Man by his nature has boundaries to his life and activities; they are inescapable for man. There are boundaries to my property, my abilities, and my authority. By definition, no god nor religion can have boundaries and limitations to its sway without self-destruction. A god is either sovereign and total in his jurisdiction, or else he is soon no god at all; something else bests him and replaces him. All the false gods of history until recently were false gods because the men who made them also placed limits upon them. This was especially clear with the gods of Rome; they were created by men, the Roman Senate specifically, and hence men always had priority over the gods. The gods in time became more and more obviously tools and a department of state for the Roman Empire, which claimed catholic or universal sway and sovereignty for itself.

In the modern world, the humanistic state claims this sovereignty: it is the modern god walking upon earth. The modern state claims sovereignty and catholicity; the United Nations is the attempt of humanistic statism to attain true and full universality and catholicity.

Meanwhile, the Christian church is busily departing from the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and His necessary catholic jurisdiction. Christianity is increasingly limited to a “spiritual” realm (of which it now concedes vast areas to psychology and psychiatry), and the rest of the world is granted to the state.

The result is box theology. To understand what box theology is, let us compare the universe to the Empire State Building, a great, modern, skyscraper office building. In box theology, the church claims one small office among hundreds for Christianity. All the rest of the building is given over to the jurisdiction of the state and the sciences. One area after another is deemed nonreligious and is surrendered. This is done despite the fact that God is the Creator and Lord of the whole universe and therefore has total and absolute jurisdiction over all things. God’s law-word, jurisdiction, and authority must govern all things. “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3).

The jurisdiction of the church is a limited one, but the jurisdiction of the triune God, of Christ our King, and of the Bible, God’s law-word, cannot be limited. Every area of life and thought must be under the dominion of the Lord: He alone is truly sovereign. To limit the jurisdiction of Christ is to posit a limited god, one who cannot survive because a limited god is a contradiction and is no god at all. If God is God, if He truly is the Lord or Sovereign, everything must serve Him and be under His dominion, the state, schools, arts, sciences, the church, and all things else. To limit the jurisdiction of the God of Scripture to the soul of man and to the church is to deny Him. A limited god cannot save man, because he is not in control of all things; what he does today can be undone tomorrow, and his “salvation” is at best temporary.

Box theology limits the church, moreover, and destroys it. If the church and its word is limited, to return to our image, to one room and none other in the Empire State Building, then its only legitimate area of concern is the church, and, to a degree, the soul of man. There can then be no dealing with the problems of the age, because they lie outside the jurisdiction of the church.

The results are both deplorable and revolting. The “world” of the church is then no larger than the church; it is boxed into its narrow little room. All its battles then are waged within that “world,” the church. This means that the world of the church in box theology becomes a realm of continual civil war, Protestants and Catholics against one another, Arminians and Calvinists in opposition to one another, and so on. This does not mean that the issues between these groups are inconsequential. It does mean that subordinate issues are made the only ones. The crown rights of Christ our King over the whole world are then neglected or forgotten. The necessity of bringing politics, economics, the arts and sciences, education, the family, all peoples, tongues, tribes, and nations under the dominion of Christ the Lord is truncated or short-circuited.

Box theology believes it is strict because it is narrow in its scope, whereas a true strictness claims all things for Christ the King. This false strictness leads to Phariseeism and to censoriousness. (One such pathetic little group of box theology advocates rails at all other Christians in issue after issue. One recent publication actually declared that John Whitehead “scorns the cross” because he disagrees with their view, and held that I believe in the Inquisition, arriving at this by a wild misreading of one of my books! These are the pathetic dead, revelling in their narrow coffin box.)

Box theology men battle against their fellow Christians continually, while the world claims more and more of Christ’s realm. Because box theology allows the state to be sovereign or lord, it offers no resistance to statist controls. As a result, in state after state, where attempts to control the church are in process, many advocates of box theology insist on surrender to the state and sometimes go to court to witness for the state against the resisting churches.

Box theology is implicit polytheism. It says in effect that there is one God over the church, but other gods over every other realm, or else, that all realms other than the church are neutral realms. These “neutral” realms are not under the mandate of Scripture but are free to follow the dictates of natural (fallen) reason wherever it leads them.

This idea of neutrality is, of course, a myth. If the God of Scripture is the true and living God, there can be no realm of neutral facts and neutral jurisdiction. All things are under God’s sovereignty and law, and nothing can exist apart from Him, nor can any law be valid other than His law. To claim neutrality for any realm is to deny that God created it, and to posit neutrality is to cease to be a Christian.

Because God is God, His jurisdiction is total, and His sovereignty absolute and indivisible. No human institution, neither church nor state, can claim any jurisdiction beyond its limited sphere. Thus, while the church has a limited sphere of authority under God, the word it must proclaim is the word of the total God for the totality of life and thought. The word proclaimed by the church cannot be limited to the church, because, if it is Scripture, it is not the word of the church, but the word of God. The word judges all things, governs all things, and offers hope in Christ to all men and all areas of life.

Box theology is dead theology, with a god too small to speak to anything more than the church. In its own way, box theology proclaims the death of God, because a limited God ceases to be God. The forces of humanistic statism have advanced only through default. Churchmen have retreated from and abandoned one area after another to the humanists, and many continue to retreat. Sigmund Freud saw the inner world of man as the last domain of Biblical religion; all other spheres had been captured.

By converting psychology (the word concerning the soul) from a theological to a scientific discipline, and guilt from a theological fact to a scientific concern, Freud hoped to make religion totally irrelevant (see R. J. Rushdoony, Freud). Even more than Freud, the pietists have been remarkable in their enforced limitations upon Biblical faith.

Ironically, the bankruptcy of humanism has increased as its sway and power have been broadened. When the Enlightenment triumphed over the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, it brought into sharp focus a development which had previously marked the Renaissance era, the rift between classes. There had previously been very serious problems between the rich and the poor, but the fact of a common faith and a common life in the church had provided a bond and a basis for community, a hope for the potential solution to problems. Christian faith had stressed a necessary harmony of interests.

With the Enlightenment, the common faith gave way to a widening gulf and to hostilities. Leon Garfield, in The House of Hanover (1976), called attention to the fact that, with the first Hanover ruler in England, the first Riot Act was passed. The foreign king, George I, was a fitting symbol of the fact that rulers and the people were now foreigners one to another. The people, said Garfield, were prone to rioting. Silk-weavers, coal-heavers, sailors, powdered footmen, gaolbirds, and ex-soldiers, all were rioting. Ex-soldiers from Marlborough’s foreign wars turned highwaymen, and the modern age came with the affirmation of “Reason,” and with riots.

The number of offenses which received the death penalty grew steadily, but so too did crime. Today, too, we have many who believe that stricter laws and penalties will solve the problem of crime, but they did not then, nor will they now. All such men have their own version of box theology or box philosophy. Hanging children for stealing a loaf of bread did not stop crime or juvenile delinquency in eighteenth-century England; the evangelical awakening, a partial return of Puritanism, did much to alter the situation.

Moreover, law and order have various meanings in the Soviet Union, Red China, Sweden, and the United States, but they are all variations of humanism. Only Biblical law and order, coupled with the regenerating power of Jesus Christ, can alter a society.

Ultimately, any faith which does not have the triune God of Scripture and Jesus Christ as its Alpha and Omega is a box philosophy or theology, and this is clearly true of our new imitation catholicism, the modern humanistic state. However totalitarian its claims, its faith fails to be universal or true, because it boxes itself in to insulate itself from God and His law-word. It is thus dead to life and to truth, and it is doomed to collapse and the grave.

The law of the modern state is the law of death. In both the United States and Canada, for example, pornography trials have as their premise “community standards.” Whether it be adult or child pornography, the test of its legality is the community standard. This is the legal enactment of Genesis 3:5, every man as his own god, knowing, or determining for himself, what is good and evil. Such a “community standard” as law means that, if the community favors abortion, theft, murder, rape, or incest, these things can become legal.

A box theology or philosophy is finally no bigger than man, whether man’s pietism or man’s sin, but, in any case, it is no bigger than man. God’s sentence upon it is the sentence already pronounced on all the sons of Adam, and upon all their institutions, philosophies, and theologies — death. There is no escaping this sentence apart from Jesus Christ, who is the Lord or Sovereign over all men and all creation.

To acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord is to bring ourselves, our every thought, every action and word, all spheres of life, and all institutions, under His jurisdiction and law-word. Box theologies and philosophies are finally allotted a narrow box by God; its name is hell. The glorious liberty of the sons of God is to be a new creation in and through Jesus Christ, to work for the fullness of that new creation, and to dwell therein eternally in the great consummation by Him who makes all things new.


R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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