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Fr. 737

November 4, 2016

How does Spode go about drawing out the political consequences of theonomy? The author proposes to do so by looking at precisely the way in which van Til’s intellectual progeny drew their own conclusions.

Rushdoony also drew the obvious prescriptive conclusion. If thinking outside of the Christian framework only leads to sinful, nonsensical error – perhaps catastrophic error – we need to eliminate such thinking. In Rushdoony’s view, it was time to abandon the Enlightenment ideas about liberal, open-ended discourse. That was the sort of fuzzyheaded thinking that got us into this mess. Basically, anything secular would have to be put to the flames, from Darwin to Kant to you name it.

Indeed, it is not difficult to see the move from theonomy’s descriptive account of epistemology to a prescriptive account of institutions. Insofar as modern political institutions count out the possibility of appealing to a divine or external source for law, preferring instead an immanent account on which those institutions give themselves their own law, modern political institutions stand in contravention of theonomy’s basic tenets. For what holds for the individual’s knowledge and reason holds as well for a collective agent’s knowledge and reason. Accordingly, someone committed to the full extension of this doctrine (thus modeling what Rawls calls a fully comprehensive doctrine) would naturally countenance no strong divide between the private and the public. Wherefore the need to overhaul public institutions.

Spode at once insists on this point and signals its further consequences in writing:

Rushdoony also argued (also consistent with his basic assumptions) that all education should be Christian based. I mean, how could he not argue this given the assumption that secular thinking led inexorably to error and nonsense? A secular government shouldn’t be involved in education at all. ‘Secular education’ was an oxymoron.

If contemporary political institutions are charged with setting up education and those same institutions are incapable of knowledge and reason, then these institutions, assuming a secular form of teaching therein, can pass nothing on to their students and must inevitably mislead them as to both the groundwork and the content of knowledge. Again supposing a fully comprehensive doctrine, this calls for action on the part of the individual.

Moreover, if institutions cannot promote knowledge and reason nor are the people making them up, as per their education by those same institutions, capable of leading them to knowledge and reason, then those institutions are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of, at best, futility and, at worst, iniquity. It is easy enough to understand why, from the perspective of theonomy, the institutions making up modern life, as well as the kinds of people which they tend to create, must be found wanting.

Yet the prosecution of modern life does not end there. For, from the fundamentalist’s perspective, it is not merely a question of making room for schools and institutions which promote theonomy. Indeed, making room in such a way would come about through precisely those institutions which undercut knowledge and reason in the first place. Rather, it is democracy itself which must be put to the question. Spode notes:

What also went unscrutinized were Rushdoony’s teachings about “the heresy of democracy,” as well as his claims that “Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic; it is committed to spiritual aristocracy.” Democracy was, he told us, “the great love of the failures and cowards of life.” Now, of course, this is what they say on the inside. What the neo-Reformationists project to the outside world is another matter altogether. When talking in public, the claim is always “religious liberty.” But this is, as they will admit if you catch them in a moment, a ruse.

In truth, this anti-democratic position is what proves most worrying for the everyday observer in that adherents to theonomy do not envisage making a place for themselves within the democratic framework. Rather, they seem intent on doing away with that framework altogether by coopting democratic mechanisms to illiberal purposes. Spode spends no little time emphasizing this very point, as in such passages where the author sketches a vision of the theonomist future:

So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God. Murder, abortion, and pornography will be illegal. God’s law will be enforced. It will take time.

At the root of it all stand two notions: epistemologically, there can be neither knowledge nor reason without grace; socially, there can be no neutral position from which to adjudicate claims between groups. Accordingly, this gives a view on which the group in possession of knowledge and reason must assert its own position over all others. In the end, as Spode suggests, the goal is to do away with democracy altogether:

Note the van Tillian presuppositionalism in the claim that there is no neutral position. Note also that North’s principal goal is to educate people in that presuppositionalist philosophical position: “train up a generation of people” to see that there is no neutral position. The talk of “religious liberty” is just a ruse to be used until we construct a Bible-based society. At that point, (stealing a metaphor from Wittgenstein) the religious liberty talk can be kicked away like a ladder.

What might democratic theorists be able to oppose to such a view in order to engage it in dialogue?


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