The War that Never Came: A Different Perspective

Just a follow-up to the earlier article.

From the Publisher’s Preface of the Days of Vengeance, by Gary North.

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The vast majority of Christians have believed that things will get progressively worse in almost every area of life until Jesus returns with His angels. Premillennialists believe that He will establish an earthly visible kingdom, with Christ in charge and bodily present. Amillennialists do not believe in any earthly visible kingdom prior to the final judgment. They believe that only the church and Christian schools and families will visibly represent the kingdom on earth, and the world will fall increasingly under the domination of Satan.[1] Both eschatologies teach the earthly defeat of Christ’s church prior to His physical return in power.

One problem with such an outlook is that when the predictable defeats in life come, Christians have a theological incentive to shrug their shoulders, and say to themselves, “That’s life. That’s the way God prophesied it would be. Things are getting worse.” They read the dreary headlines of the daily newspaper, and they think to themselves, “Jesus’ Second Coming is just around the corner.” The inner strength that people need to rebound from life’s normal external defeats is sapped by a theology that preaches inevitable earthly defeat for the church of Jesus Christ. People think to themselves: “If even God’s holy church cannot triumph, then how can I expect to triumph?” Christians therefore become the psychological captives of newspaper-selling pessimistic headlines.

They begin with a false assumption: the inevitable defeat in history of Christ’s church by Satan’s earthly forces, despite the fact that Satan was mortally wounded at Calvary. Satan is not “alive and well on Planet Earth.” He is alive, but he is not well. To argue otherwise is to argue for the historical impotence and cultural irrelevance of Christ’s work on Calvary.

The Revival of Optimism

While pessimistic eschatologies have been popular for a century, there has always been an alternative theology, a theology of dominion. It was the reigning faith of the Puritans in that first generation (1630-1660) when they began to subdue the wilderness of New England. It was also the shared faith in the era of the American Revolution. It began to fade under the onslaught of Darwinian evolutionary thought in the second half of the nineteenth century. It almost completely disappeared after World War I, but it is rapidly returning today. David Chilton’s books on eschatology are now the primary manifestos in this revival of theological optimism.

Today, the Christian Reconstruction movement has recruited some of the best and brightest young writers in the United States. Simultaneously, a major shift in eschatological perspective is sweeping through the charismatic movement. This combination of rigorous, disciplined, lively, dominion-oriented scholarship and the enthusiasm and sheer numbers of victory-oriented charismatics has created a major challenge to the familiar, tradition-bound, aging, and, most of all, present-oriented conservative Protestantism. It constitutes what could become the most important theological shift in American history, not simply in this century, but in the history of the nation. I expect this transformation to be visible by the year 2000 – a year of considerable eschatological speculation.

If I am correct, and this shift takes place, The Days of Vengeance will be studied by historians as a primary source document for the next two or three centuries.

Producing New Leaders: Key to Survival

Because pessimillennialism could not offer students long-term hope in their earthly futures, both versions have defaulted culturally. This withdrawal from cultural commitment culminated during the fateful years, 1965-71. When the world went through a psychological, cultural, and intellectual revolution, where were the concrete and specific Christian answers to the pressing problems of that turbulent era? Nothing of substance came from traditional seminaries. It was as if their faculty members believed that the world would never advance beyond the dominant issues of 1952. (And even back in 1952, seminary professors were mostly whispering.) The leaders of traditional Christianity lost their opportunity to capture the best minds of a generation. They were perceived as being muddled and confused. There was a reason for this. They were muddled and confused.

In the 1970’s, only two groups within the Christian community came before the Christian public and announced: “We have the biblical answers.”[2] They were at opposite ends of the political spectrum: the liberation theologians on the Left and the Christian Reconstructionists on the Right.[3] The battle between these groups has intensified since then. Chilton’s book, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators (1981),[4] is the most important single document in this theological confrontation. But from the confused middle, there have been no clear-cut Biblical answers to either of these two positions.

The future of pessimillennialism is being eroded. As the world’s social crises intensify, and as it becomes apparent that traditional conservative Protestantism still has no effective, specific, workable answers to the crises of our day, a drastic and presently unanticipated shift of Christian opinion probably will take place – an event analogous to the collapse of a dam. There will be a revolution in the way millions of conservative Christians think. Then there will be a revolution in what they do.

The liberation theologians will not win this battle for the minds of Christians. There will be a religious backlash against the Left on a scale not seen in the West since the Bolshevik Revolution, and perhaps not since the French Revolution. At that point, only one group will possess in ready reserve a body of intellectual resources adequate for stemming the tide of humanism: the Christian Reconstructionists, meaning those who preach dominion, and even more specifically, those who preach dominion by covenant. With this intellectual foundation, given the existence of catastrophic cultural, economic, and political conditions, they will take over leadership of conservative Protestantism. The existing Protestant leaders suspect this, and they do not like its implications. Nevertheless, they are unwilling or unable to do what is necessary to counter this development. Specifically, they are not producing the intellectual resources to counter what the Christian Reconstructionists are producing.

Instead, they murmur. This tactic will fail.

Silencing the Critics

For over two decades, critics chided the Christian Reconstructionists with this refrain: “You people just haven’t produced any Biblical exegesis to prove your case for eschatological optimism.” Then came Paradise Restored in 1985. A deathly

silence engulfed the formerly vociferous critics. Now comes The Days of Vengeance. The silence will now become deafening. Few critics will reply in print, I suspect, though if they refuse to reply, they have thereby accepted the validity of the coroner’s report: death by strangulation (footnotes caught in the throat).

Oh, there may be a few hastily written book reviews in unread Christian scholarly journals. Dallas Seminary’s Prof. Lightner may write one, like the one-page bit of fluff he wrote on Paradise Restored, in which he said, in effect, “See here, this man is a postmillennialist, and you need to understand that we here at Dallas Seminary aren’t!”[5] There may be a few brief disparaging remarks in popular paperback books about the insignificant and temporary revival of full-scale dominion theology. But there will be no successful attempt by scholarly leaders of the various pessimillennial camps to respond to Chilton. There is a reason for this: They cannot effectively respond. As we say in Tyler, they just don’t have the horses. If I am incorrect about their theological inability, then we will see lengthy, detailed articles showing why Chilton’s book is utterly wrong. If we don’t see them, you can safely conclude that our opponents are in deep trouble. To cover their naked flanks, they will be tempted to offer the familiar refrain: “We will not dignify such preposterous arguments with a public response.”

That is to say, they will run up the intellectual white flag.

Chilton’s critics will have a problem with this silent approach, however. The problem is Professor Gordon Wenham, who wrote the Foreword. There is probably no more respected Bible-believing Old Testament commentator in the English-speaking world. His commentary on Leviticus sets a high intellectual standard. If Gordon Wenham says that The Days of Vengeance is worth considering, then to fail to consider it would be a major tactical error on the part of the pessimillenialists.

I will go farther than Wenham does. This book is a landmark effort, the finest commentary on Revelation in the history of the Church. It has set the standard for: (1) its level of scholarship, (2) its innovative insights per page, and (3) its readability. This unique combination – almost unheard of in academic circles – leaves the intellectual opposition nearly defenseless. There may be a few academic specialists who will respond competently to this or that point in The Days of Vengeance, but their technical essays will not be read widely, especially by the average pastor or layman. There may also be one or two theologians who attempt to respond comprehensively (though I doubt it), but their muddled expositions will win few new followers. (I have in mind a particular amillennial scholar who is known for his unique insights into Biblical symbolism, but whose writings communicate his ideas with the clarity of Zen Buddhist thought-teasers or Alexander Haig’s press conferences.)

Mainly, they face the tactical problem of calling attention to this book within their hermetically sealed followings. If their followers ever sit down and read The Days of Vengeance, Christian Reconstructionism will pick off the best and the brightest of them. Why? Because earthly hope is easier to sell than earthly defeat, at least to people who are not happy to accept their condition as historical losers. A lot of Christians today are tired of losing. Even if it means starting to take responsibility – and that is precisely what dominion theology means – a growing number of bright, young Christians are ready to pay this price in order to stop losing. Thus, any extended discussion of this book becomes a recruiting device for Christian Reconstructionism. Too many bright, young readers will be tipped off to the existence of dominion theology.

Our opponents know this, so I do not expect to see any systematic effort to refute Chilton on eschatology, any more than we have seen a book-long effort to refute Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1977)[6] or R. J. Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law (1973).[7] The potential critics have had plenty of time; they have not had plenty of definitive answers. I believe the reason is that the Bible’s case for the continuing standard of Biblical law is too strong. Our opponents would prefer that we remain silent and stop raising these difficult ethical questions. Our opponents are caught in a major dilemma. If they continue to fail to respond, their silence becomes a public admission of intellectual defeat. If they do respond, we have an opportunity to reply – and the replies are where the academic debating points are always scored. When you fail to respond effectively to the replies, you lose the debate. Our opponents understand the rules of the academic game. They do not begin the confrontation.

At the same time, they need our insights in order to make sense of at least parts of the Bible. I have seen copies of Rushdoony’s Institutes for sale in the Dallas Theological Seminary Bookstore. They need his insights on Biblical law, yet they cannot deal with the underlying theology of his book. They simply dismiss him as somehow unimportant on such issues. They pretend that he has not offered a monumental challenge to dispensational ethics.[8] They pretend that they can successfully use his book as a kind of neutral reference work on the Old Testament case laws, and also somehow avoid losing their most energetic students to the Christian Reconstructionist movement. The career of Pastor Ray Sutton (a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary) indicates that they have made a mistake.

In a popularly written essay for a non-Christian audience, two fundamentalist authors insisted that while R. J. Rushdoony’s insights on education and politics are used by fundamentalists, they do not take his kingdom views seriously. When their Christian schools are brought to court by some arrogant state attorney general, they call in Rushdoony to take the witness stand for the defense. This has been going on since the mid-1970’s. They need him. They know they need him. Yet his two fundamentalist critics went on to say that hardly anyone in the Christian world takes his views on the kingdom of God seriously. “Fortunately, we can say with confidence that he represents a very small group with absolutely no chance of achieving their agenda.”[9]

In terms of numbers, they were correct: The Christian Reconstruction movement is small. In terms of young men who can write and speak and take leadership positions, the two authors were whistling by the graveyard – their own movement’s graveyard. If traditional, pessimillennial fundamentalist intellectual leaders really had the academic answers to today’s problems in social, economic, and political life, they would not be drinking at the well of Christian Reconstructionism. But they are. They have no place else to go.

I do not expect to see The Days of Vengeance for sale in the Dallas Seminary Bookstore. I do not expect to see it on any traditional dispensational seminary’s recommended reading list. If this book gains wide circulation among the next generation of dispensational pastors, there will be a sharp break of leadership within dispensationalism. The best and the brightest will be absent. If Dallas Seminary students read it, and also read Paradise Restored, the professors at Dallas will be subjected to hard questioning, the likes of which they have never seen since that school was founded. (If the students also read Sutton’s That You May Prosper, the faculty will have a theological revolution on its hands.) The faculty is not about to make this sort of short-run trouble for itself, even though in the longer run this conspiracy of silence will cost dispensationalism dearly. These books probably will not be sold at Grace Theological Seminary, either. And, just for the record, let me predict that you will not see Chilton’s books recommended at non-dispensational seminaries either, for very similar reasons: They are too hot to handle.

I will make myself perfectly clear: If the faculty members of any institution calling itself a Bible-believing theological seminary cannot risk assigning to their seniors, Chilton’s Paradise Restored, Sutton’s That You May Prosper, and Bahnsen’s By This Standard – threeshort, easily read, minimally footnoted books – because they are afraid of disturbing their students’ thinking, or because they themselves are not ready to provide answers to their students’ inevitable questions, then that faculty has raised the white flag to the Christian Reconstructionists. It means that we Reconstructionists have won the theological fight.

We are already picking off some of their brightest young men, and doing it on a regular basis. They read our books secretly, and they are waiting for their instructors to say something in response. Their instructors are hiding. They are involved in the child’s game of “let’s pretend.” “Let’s pretend that these books were never published. Let’s pretend that our brightest students are not being picked off by them. Let’s pretend that this flood of newsletters out of Tyler, Texas doesn’t exist. Let’s pretend that Christian Reconstructionism is going to go away soon. Let’s pretend that someone else will write a book that answers them, and that it will be published early next year.” This strategy is backfiring all over the country. The Christian Reconstructionists own the mailing lists that prove it. When seminary professors play a giant game of “let’s pretend,” it is only a matter of time.

Frankly, it is highly doubtful that the average faculty member of the typical Bible-believing seminary is ready to assign my short paperback book aimed at teenagers: 75 Bible Questions Your Instructors Pray You Won’t Ask (1984).[10] This is why I am confident that the prevailing theological conservatism is about to be uprooted. Seminary faculties that need to be on the offensive against a humanist civilization are incapable of even defending their own positions from cheap paperback Christian books, let alone replace an entrenched humanist order.

I will put it as bluntly as I can: Our eschatological opponents will not attack us in print, except on rare occasions. They know that we will respond in print, and that at that point they will be stuck. They want to avoid this embarrassment at any price – even the price of seeing their brightest young men join the Christian Reconstructionist movement. And, quite frankly, that suits us just fine. Heads, we win; tails, we win.

Defenseless Traditionalists

If any movement finds that it is being confronted by dedicated opponents who are mounting a full-scale campaign, it is suicidal to sit and do nothing. It is almost equally suicidal to do something stupid. What generally happens is that the leaders of comfortable, complacent, and intellectually flabby movements do nothing for too long, and then in a panic they rush out and do a whole series of stupid things, beginning with the publication of articles or books that are visibly ineffectual in the eyes of the younger men who would otherwise become the movement’s future leaders.

The most important tactic that the existing leadership can adopt is a program of convincing the movement’s future leaders that the movement has the vision, the program, and the first principles to defeat all enemies. To be convincing, this tactic requires evidence for such superiority. Such evidence is presently lacking within traditional pessimillennial groups. They begin with the presupposition that God has not given His church the vision, program, and first principles to defeat God’s enemies, even with Christ’s victory over Satan at Calvary as the foundation of the Church’s ministry.

The traditional pessimillennialists have issued a clarion call: “Come join us; we’re historical losers.” They have built their institutions by attracting people who are content to remain historical (pre-second coming) losers.

Understand that I am discussing traditional pessimillennialism. As the climate of Christian opinion shifts, we find that younger, energetic, and social action-oriented premillennialists and amillennialists are now appearing. This will continue. They insist that they can be kingdom optimists and social activists, too. They insist on being called members of the dominion theology movement. I do not see any evidence that they have been willing to go into print on how their eschatologies are conformable to earthly, “Church Age” optimism, but I am happy to see them coming aboard the Good Ship Dominion. What I need to point out, however, is that in all the seminaries and in the large publishing houses, no such social optimism is visible yet. Traditional pessimists still run these institutions. This is going to change eventually, but it will probably take decades.

Eschatological optimism is the first step in many people’s journey into dominion theology. This is why the leaders with more traditional outlooks are so upset. They recognize that first step for what it is: the end of the road for pessimillennialism.

[1] Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), especially chapter 5.

[2] Francis Schaeffer had been announcing since 1965 that humanist civilization is an empty shell, and that it has no earthly future. He repeated over and over that Christianity has the questions that humanism cannot answer. The problem was that as a Calvinistic premillennialist, he did not believe that any specifically Christian answers would ever be implemented before Christ’s second coming. He did not devote much space in his books to providing specifically Christian answers to the Christian questions that he raised to challenge humanist civilization. He asked excellent cultural questions; he offered few specifically Christian answers. There were reasons for this: Chilton and North, op. cit.

[3] In the highly restricted circles of amillennial Calvinism, a short-lived movement of North American Dutch scholars appeared, 1965-75, the “cosmonomic idea” school, also known as the neo-Dooyeweerdians, named after the Dutch legal scholar and philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd. They made little impression outside of the North American Dutch community, and have since faded into obscurity. Their precursors in the early 1960s had been more conservative, but after 1965, too many of them became ideological fellow travellers of the liberation theologians. They could not compete with the harder-core radicalism represented by Sojourners and The Other Side, and they faded.

[4] David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators: A Biblical Response to Ronald J. Sider (4th ed.; Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986).

[5] Bibliotheca Sacra (April-June 1986).

[6] 2nd edition, 1984. Published by Presbyterian & Reformed, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.

[7] Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, 1973.

[8] The one book-length attempt of any dispensationalist scholar to refute theonomists is an unpublished Dallas Theological Seminary doctoral dissertation: Ramesh Paul Richard’s Hermeneutical Prolegomena to Premillennial Social Ethics (1982). It has not been published even in a reworked form. It is understandable why not: a terrible title. Worse, the dissertation gave away too much theological ground to the theonomists. This indicates the crisis facing dispensationalism today.

[9] Ed Dobson and Ed Hindson, “Apocalypse Now?” Policy Review (Oct. 1986), p. 20.

[10] Published by Spurgeon Press, P.O. Box 7999, Tyler, Texas 75711.

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