In a recent interview with Christian Renewal magazine, one of evangelicalism's preeminent authors and theologians, J. I. Packer, was asked for an analysis of Christian Reconstruction (CR). With Dr. Packer's reputation as an evangelical scholar, one would have expected and hoped for an insightful and profitable critique. Alas, this did not happen. As much as we have appreciated Dr. Packer's many significant contributions to the kingdom over the years, in this interview he did a great disservice to Christian Renewal's readers and his Christian Reconstructionist brothers. Throughout his assessment, he consistently misrepresents, misinterprets, and makes errors in fact about Christian Reconstruction. These errors are so pervasive that one MUST conclude that Dr. Packer has no first-hand knowledge of Christian Reconstruction at all. For no one who had actually read any of the more than 300 books, countless essays, or journal articles written by Reconstructionists could ever have arrived at the conclusions he made.
For example, Packer says "the reconstructionists have made quite a bit of noise in the past 40 years." Granted, R. J. Rushdoony first used the term "reconstruction" as early as 1965, but at that time it was not a movement so much as a task — the necessity to restore Christian civilization. Rushdoony's The Institutes of Biblical Law, normally considered the "seminal" work of Christian Reconstruction, was published in 1973. Hence the Christian Reconstructionist "movement" is more like 25 years old, not 40. Granted, this is not a great error, but if Dr. Packer makes such an easily verifiable mistake in fact on something as fundamental as when the "movement" began, can we really trust him on more arcane matters? It appears not, especially when he makes the following comments.
He says, "It is equally true that Rushdoony has among his roles taken it on to himself to expound the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. But I don't think that those presuppositional apologetics have any integral relation to Reconstructionist theology." Again, one wonders if Dr. Packer has ever read ANYTHING by an actual Reconstructionist author. Rushdoony and those influenced by him made presuppositional apologetics one of the defining marks of the CR movement. The Creed of Christian Reconstruction (frequently printed inside the front cover of the Chalcedon Report) lists presuppositional apologetics as one of the five defining criteria of a Christian Reconstructionist.
In fact, Van Til's premise that there can be no neutrality is the very reason why Reconstructionists posit Biblical law as fundamental to a Christian culture. It was Van Til himself who stated that there are only two alternatives, autonomy or theonomy (though granted, he did not develop this in the way CR has done). If there is no "natural" law by which the nations can be governed, by what standard will they be judged? CR says that the answer is the Bible — all of it — especially the bits that run counter to modern humanistic culture. Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists ALL make presuppositional thinking fundamental to everything else they write. Van Til's presuppositional thinking is so paramount in EVERY SINGLE BOOK that there is simply no excuse for Dr. Packer's statement, unless of course, again, he has NEVER read the books.
Dr. Packer then says, "They say that for nations which have ventured to identify themselves as Christian, the Old Testament legislation (at every point where it hasn't explicitly been canceled by the New Testament), should be held still to apply, and we should be reconstructing our legal, political, economic, and social systems in the specific light of (that) legislation. That's a twist which I don't think anyone had thought of prior to the Reconstructionists."
This comment is revisionist to say the least. Surely Dr. Packer is familiar with the Scottish Covenanters. Surely he has heard of the New England Puritans. I dare say, has he never read Gillespie and the other Scottish delegates to the Westminster Assembly? All these men required the state to enforce BOTH tablets of the law! He would do well to read and interact with James Jordan's Calvinism and "The Judicial Law of Moses" (published in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction) which demonstrates that the "theonomic" position has a long and respectable history within the Reformed camp. Or he might have consulted Theonomy and the Westminster Confession: An Annotated Sourcebook, compiled by Martin A. Foulner (Marpet Press, 1997, distributed by James A. Dickson Books, 12 Forrest Road, Edinburgh, EH1 2QN) which demonstrates the very view that Packer sees as a "new twist" is as old as the Reformation!
For a scholar of Dr. Packer's reputation to make such a fundamental gaff is astounding. Granted, this belief is NOT common today in Reformed circles. But it was three hundred years ago. The only new addition that Reconstructionists make is to apply Van Tilian presuppositional thinking to social and cultural matters. But we already covered that, did we not?
He goes on to say, "Historically, Reformed and Evangelical Christians have held that the law of God in the Old Testament, which turned Israel into a theocracy, was for Israel specifically." Is not the good doctor familiar at all with the Westminster Confession (and the Larger Catechism) that, in chapter 19, requires ALL men and ALL nations to submit to the law of God? Granted, the Confession makes a distinction between the ceremonial, moral, and judicial laws (distinctions also made by Reconstructionists), and that the judicial laws are not binding except for the general equity thereof. But anyone familiar with seventeenth century Reformed theology should know that the very term "judicial law" referred to civil penalties applied to violations of the ceremonial law. But even so, the general equity clause states that the underlying principles still apply. Rushdoony's Institutes is an in-depth analysis of just how all the other Old Testament laws are subsumed in the moral law. There really is NO excuse for a scholar not knowing these things.
Slander and Libel
Packer goes beyond simple ignorance and enters into the world of slander and libel. The sheer outrageousness of what comes next has to be seen in full to appreciate the magnitude of error. He says:
...They bring in what one would have to call a presupposition which they never allowed fully to break surface — the Messianic presupposition regarding American identity. [In this view], the United States of America, founded by the Pilgrims who fled old England and brought with them the ideology that God wants a redeemer nation, came to the States because they could no longer see England in this redeemer nation role. They then implanted this Messianic mindset into American culture. But this puts the Reconstructionists into the Anglo-Israelite camp.
This charge is simply beyond belief. First, he makes an incredible error of fact. The Pilgrims were a small separatist group who had little or no lasting influence on the development of American history. It was the PURITANS who established the New England Commonwealth and contributed so much to a distinctive American culture. John Cotton, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards were PURITANS, not Pilgrims. Perhaps Packer can be forgiven this mistake, since as an Anglican, it was his party that drove the Puritans OUT of the Church of England. But surely, a scholar should know better.
But even more importantly, his identification of Reconstruction with British Israelism is simply unwarranted and inexcusable. Over the past twenty years, I have read every single book, essay, and article written by Rushdoony and the other authors who are the acknowledged intellectual leaders of the Christian Reconstructionist movement. Never, I repeat, NEVER have I ever seen one indication of the above heresy of British Israelism. Never, have I read that the United States has any special place in God's plan above that of any other nation. I have read much about the blessings the United States received because of its Christian heritage. I have read much about how we have lost those blessings through apostasy, heresy, and unbelief. But never have any of these authors equated the United States with Israel, past or future.
Packer has thus revealed that he does not really know what Reconstructionists believe and, again, at the risk of being redundant, one must therefore assume that he has simply never read the books. Otherwise, he would be guilty of intentional misrepresentation. Granted, the type of messianic thinking he criticizes might have been true of some seventeenth century New England Puritans, but it is not, and never has been, part of twentieth century Christian Reconstruction. And therefore, with all due respect, Dr. Packer simply does not know what he is talking about.
He then says:
They certainly don't see themselves as fitting into that camp, but that's properly where they belong. I had to do with the `British-Israel' movement when I lived in Britain, and I recognize the same kind of thinking. [Reconstructionists] of course don't affirm that they're the `lost tribes of Israel' in the way that the founding Anglo-Israelites did, but they are saying that the mantle of Old Testament Israel has fallen on the United States of America. It follows then that the U. S., just as Jonathan Edwards thought, is to be the centre of worldwide evangelism producing the converted world to which Christ would come back. This implies that America must rise to the height of its vocation as a godly nation in its legislation, culture, and political procedures.
Do you get the point above? Even though Reconstructionists don't think of themselves as being British Israelites, they really are! Why? Because Packer says so! Where, is the documentation for this claim? There is none. It cannot be documented because the allegation is blatantly false. Reconstructionists do NOT believe that America has inherited the mantle of Old Testament Israel. No one ever said this. No one ever believed this. Why then does Dr. Packer accuse us of this?
Furthermore, he says that, "This leads to Reconstructionist backing for all manner of attempts to take political control in the management of the country." Nonsense and double nonsense! Opponents often throw this canard at Christian Reconstruction accusing us of wanting to substitute politics for the gospel. But EVERY leader in the movement has stated again and again ad nausem that the key to cultural reformation is the proclamation of the gospel and the discipling of the nations to obey Christ (you remember, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20?). The nations will be reformed, not by political activism, but by regeneration. God's law cannot be imposed from the top down, but must be embraced from the bottom up. These accusations have been repudiated so often, in so many books, essays, and articles, that it is simply irresponsible that any serious scholar in the field should repeat them. Again, one could make these statements ONLY if one had no personal knowledge of the literature, but instead based one's assessment on hearsay, gossip, and rumor. One would hope for better things from a man of Packer's stature. One would hope, it seems, in vain.
He then says, "They are trying to turn the United States into a Christian nation so the country can inherit the mantle of Old Testament Israel." One question, Dr. Packer: where has ANY Reconstructionist ever said this? You repeated this charge several times. Either give us a citation, or offer an apology. You have seriously misrepresented our position. You have slandered your brothers by equating them with a well-known heretical group. You have accused us of saying things we have never said, and believing things we do not believe; things that we have gone to great pains to refute time and time again in books, magazines, and journals. You have borne false witness and thus you have broken the ninth commandment.
He says, "But I am against the notion that the Lord has His favourite nation in any sense." You might be surprised, Dr. Packer, but I think all published Reconstructionists would agree with you. And since we all agree with you, why would you say we do not?
Dr. Packer was asked to comment about the distinction between Christian Reconstruction, which he thinks is fundamentally wrong, and Kuyperianism, which he thinks is fundamentally right. The sad thing is that he does not seem to know that most Christian Reconstructionists embrace some sort of Kuyperianism! Sphere sovereignty is a widely used and written about presupposition in many of Rushdoony's works. The one major critique of Kuyper is in his use of natural law, the SAME critique that Van Til made!
Evangelical scholarship has come on hard times when one of the leading theologians of our day can make the kind of assessment that J. I. Packer does and be taken seriously. Without meaning to be disrespectful, quite frankly, he simply does not have a clue. His major criticisms are invalid, because they have nothing to do with what Reconstructionists actually believe or teach.
How could he make such erroneous remarks? Dr. Packer is probably simply repeating things he has heard. For any number of reasons (see my Chalcedon Report essay "Why Do Other Reformed Christians Hate Reconstructionists?"), Packer has heard some bad things about us, integrated that "knowledge" with his own broad understanding of Reformed theology and history and formed an opinion, an opinion formed without apparently ever consulting the original sources. If one of his students had done such sloppy work, surely he would have flunked him! But a man in his position, with his reputation and influence, bears greater responsibility. Before he speaks in public about his brothers, he ought to check his facts first.
Christian Reconstruction can and should be critiqued, but surely it should be critiqued for what it actually believes and teaches, NOT for accusations based on rumor and hearsay. Theonomy is NOT a new idea: it was held by Bucer (Calvin's teacher), Beza (Calvin's successor), Gillespie, many of the delegates to the Westminster Assembly, the Scottish Covenanters, and the New England Puritans. Postmillennialism WAS the dominant eschatological system of both the early Presbyterians and Puritans right up to the end of the nineteenth century. The only really "new" idea is Van Til's presuppositionalism, a position regarded by a great many contemporary Reformed scholars to be an essential development of Reformed philosophy. Christian Reconstruction simply takes these elements and puts them together to offer a comprehensive, Biblical worldview.
In essence, Christian Reconstruction believes that in God's timing, as the gospel goes forth and wins the nations, that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The only thing "radical" about Christian Reconstruction is the call to start the hard work now of determining WHAT the content of that confession will require in the arts, sciences, literature, education, politics, and every other area of life. Granted, other brothers may sincerely disagree with HOW we put these things together and their critique is welcomed and encouraged. And in one respect, Christian Reconstruction will have had a significant ministry if we are successful in motivating our brothers to do just this kind of rigorous, Biblical thinking about how to apply the Faith.
Therefore, Dr. Packer, with all due respect for your many contributions to the advancement of the kingdom, you owe us an apology. We do not believe the things you accuse us of believing. You have done us a great disservice by repeating baseless canards. Simple Christian integrity requires you to recant your false accusations and report the truth. And because you ARE a great man, we believe you will do the honorable thing.
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.