Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Unhobbling Don Quixote’s Horse

In a couple of earlier posts this week I looked at some of the differences between the premillennial and amillennial schools of thought about Bible prophecy. You can find them here and here if you’re interested.

All beliefs about prophecy have practical implications of one sort or another, but the one most likely to ruffle feathers in the here-and-now, I think, is postmillennialism. That makes it worth chewing over a little.

Millennium First, Return Later

Postmillennialists believe Christ will return after the millennium. That is relatively simple. However, unlike premillennialists, they do not associate the millennium primarily with the literal reign of Christ (obviously, since he has not yet returned) or with the fulfillment of God’s promises to national Israel (which they believe has been superseded by the Church).

Unlike amillennarians, who hold that the thousand year reign is merely symbolic and identify the millennium with the entire period between Christ’s first and second comings, postmillennialists believe the millennium occurs at the end of the Church Age, and may or may not literally last a thousand years. For most (but not all) postmillennialists, the tribulation and rapture mark the end of the millennium and the return of Christ to judge the world.

Postmillennialists teach that the millennium is a golden age in which Christian ethics prosper. It is an optimistic view of prophetic history, in that most of its adherents expect the vast majority of men and women will be saved, and that the preaching and living out of the gospel will result in faith, righteousness, peace and prosperity ultimately prevailing. If we don’t see increasing peace and righteousness now, well, that just means we’ve got some more work to do.

Two Schools of Thought

There are two schools of thought among postmillennialists about how the gospel will transform the world: revivalist postmillennialists teach that society will be changed through the regeneration of individuals, while reconstructionist postmillennialists believe that in addition to preaching the gospel, Christians should set about changing society’s institutions now, to the extent we are able under law, in accordance with biblical ethics.

While it is sometimes thought that the study of prophecy is esoteric and marginal, it should be obvious that of all the prophetic views, postmillennialism especially has immensely practical implications. Revivalist convictions should in theory produce active gospel preaching along with an apolitical outlook. Reconstructionist beliefs ought to lead to political activism with the goal of applying many of the principles of the Law of Moses to modern societies.

I don’t know if Doug Wilson would call himself a reconstructionist, but it is obvious from the things he has written that he is looking to apply biblical principles to our social and political institutions, and to do so incrementally, rather than forcibly and immediately. In a society that is at least theoretically democratic, that does not seem an unreasonable goal. If you can convince a majority of the citizens of any particular state that, say, abortion is evil, what serious Christian would not rejoice in seeing its practice severely curtailed or eliminated? That, after all, is the point of democracy: it is the expression of the people’s will. We would all prefer that people will good things rather than evil things, right?

So far so good.

Tilting at Windmills

Now, as someone who reads prophetic scripture rather differently from Wilson, I am not expecting a golden age without the return of Christ. In fact, I think it’s flat-out impossible. I think Doug is tilting at windmills. That doesn’t mean his quest isn’t a noble one, even if it is doomed to failure, because he aims to pursue it by lawful means in accordance with his understanding of the teaching of scripture and according to the dictates of his conscience. You can’t really ask for more than that. In fact, because I too believe in taking advantage of the privilege of participating in the democratic process (while remaining profoundly cynical about its real-world results), Doug and I likely vote for almost exactly the same things, and cheer for very similar results, notwithstanding our differences in eschatology.

However, I do think that if one is going to tilt at a windmill in the name of Christ, one ought to do it with intellectual consistency. Even if Don Quixote has zero chance of success, who among us would advise him to dull his lance or hobble his horse before he makes his run at the enemy?

Worldviews in Collision

So let’s examine a section from one of Doug’s recent politically-oriented posts:
“My point is not that we need America to be a Christian country in order that Christians can have religious liberty, with others not having it. My point is that religious liberty is a Christian concept, which means that if we want religious liberty for anyone, we must ground it in something other than the lowest common denominator consensus of ‘all the faiths.’ I do not want to say that ‘we are a Christian country, so you Muslims don’t get any liberty.’ I want to say that because ‘we are a Christian country, you Muslims are going to get far more liberty than you would ever get in a Muslim country.’ Some restrictions may apply, and see my test case below.”
Here Doug’s civic nationalism, constitutionality and generous conservative impulses come into abrupt collision with the long-term theocratic aspirations his eschatology inspires. A compromise will have to be negotiated, or one of these will have to be jettisoned outright. Doug’s civnat interpretation of the U.S. constitution makes him reluctant to deny religious liberty to people who worship other gods. Of course he recognizes some limitations must be imposed on the sort of cultural baggage immigrants can bring to America with them (“restrictions may apply”), but he would prefer to minimize these in the interests of making Christian values appear more liberal and appealing. “[B]ecause we are a Christian country,” Doug wants to say, “you Muslims are going to get far more liberty than you would ever get in a Muslim country.”

The Test Case

Now, in some areas of liberty, this is certainly possible. A Muslim woman in America is free to doff her hijab, niqab or burqa if she so chooses, though her co-religionists may not find that exercise of liberty to their tastes. She is free to go out and get a job, though her husband may not approve. Her son is free to indulge his previously-concealed sexual interest in men or affect a transgender persona if he would like — though, again, there is some risk to him from his fellow Muslims in doing so. But these are not per se religious liberties. They are the same liberties all Americans currently enjoy; some of which, I would argue, we and they shouldn’t enjoy at all.

However, if Doug’s test case is any indication, he’s looking to restrict religious liberty way too far downstream. For the sake of his argument, Doug has chosen to draw the line in the sand at polygamy and say, “Sorry, none of that here.” I don’t blame him, but I would argue his theocratic aspirations, if they are to be based at all on the Law of Moses, require him to draw that line several miles further upstream. Perhaps he intends to do so once he establishes that a line must indeed be drawn, but it is not yet clear precisely where.

Equality and … Equality

Let me make a suggestion. I’m not a theocrat (not in this Age anyway), but I recognize the Law of Moses commands that sojourners in a theocracy be treated with respect and justice:
“There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”
That sounds lovely and egalitarian, and I have no doubt Democrats and civic nationalist Republicans, if they knew of it, would rush to embrace the principle and hold it up to evangelicals as evidence that new immigrants to the U.S. from wherever, whenever and however, should be given the vote and rushed into positions of leadership and responsibility as quickly as possible so they can put their personal stamp on the culture, just as is currently occurring in Canada, where the immigration czar in Justin Trudeau’s government is a Somali refugee.

But that’s not what the ‘one law’ principle is saying, is it. The sojourner was not free to participate in making or modifying the rules of the country in which he was staying. The very nature of a theocracy precludes modifying God’s law. Nor could a sojourner practice his religion as he would at home:
“Say to the people of Israel, Any one … of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones.”
Well, of course. Nobody likes baby killers. That’s a line we can get behind, much like the polygamy test case.

Going Further Upstream

But no, in Israel the line was drawn a great deal further upstream. In context, the ‘one law’ principle is saying that a sojourner could not claim ignorance of Israel’s law as an excuse for breaking it. He was not to be granted reduced responsibility for his actions simply because his own culture and Israel’s had different values. There was no “soft bigotry of low expectations” in Israel. If a visitor injured a man, the ‘eye for an eye’ rule applied to him just like any Israelite. If he murdered, he was to be put to death like any Israelite. If he blasphemed, he was to be stoned just like any Israelite blasphemer. (The first recorded blasphemer was half Egyptian.) The laws of Israel were to be applied to the sojourner regardless of his home culture’s understanding of right and wrong, and regardless of his personal opinion about the God of Israel.

Now, yes, the same protections were available under the Law to the sojourner as to any Israelite, but if he wanted to participate in worship, it had to be the Israelite worship of Jehovah, and he and the males of his household had to become circumcised.

In fact, in the Israelite theocracy, the Law imposed very specific religious values on sojourners from other nations. If they wanted to make their home in Israel, even temporarily, there was no thought of visibly practicing the worship of other gods. None at all. The provisions of the Law that defined the worship of other gods as “idolatry” made other religions as forbidden to foreigners as they were to native Israelites.

Equality under the Law in Israel, certainly. But no religious freedom. None.

Incremental, Not Inconsistent

Now, Doug Wilson is an incrementalist, and perhaps he would like to offer religious freedom to Muslims in the here and now while preaching Christ to them in hope they will voluntarily tear down their own mosques in a couple of centuries. I suggest that is astoundingly unlikely, particularly in light of the difference between Muslim and post-Christian secular birthrates, and the fact that Muslims are already present in the U.S. and Canada in sufficient numbers to vote their own representatives into Congress or Parliament.

Doug says, “I do not want to say that ‘we are a Christian country, so you Muslims don’t get any liberty.’ ” That certainly sounds noble, but it’s a triumph of his liberal, civnat side over letting loose the would-be-theocrat his eschatology demands he be. The compromise he is attempting here is utterly unworkable.

From my own premillennial perspective, and with my usual glum realism, I haven’t the slightest hope folks like Doug Wilson can ring in the millennium either through revival or reconstruction. I admire their optimism and enthusiasm for Christian values, and their desire to see a better and more wholesome American culture. I cheer for them. I think they’re terrific. They can do things in good conscience that I cannot. That’s okay for them, but it wouldn’t be okay for me. I’m looking for the return of Jesus Christ, first for his people and then to judge the world in righteousness. The millennium will come after that, and there will be absolutely nothing incremental about it.

In the meantime, postmillennialists, if you’re going to tilt at windmills, at least don’t hobble your horses first.

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