10 End of Utopia

The End of Utopia, Part 10: A Critique of Gary North’s Anti-Constitutionalism

 

By Vern Crisler

Copyright, 2007

Rough Draft

 

1.  Profitable Prophecy

2.  The Millennium

3.  Minimum Utopia

4.  Utopia versus Dystopia

5.  Amillennial Dystopia

6.  Malthusian Eschatology

7.  Grounds for Optimism

8.  Conclusion

9.  Appendix: The Utopian Idea in America

 

 

1.  Profitable Prophecy

 

Gary North has not been a successful prophet.  For more than twenty years now, his prophecies of impending doom have shared one thing in common¾they have all proved unfounded.  With a track-record like that, one would think North would resign from the prophecy business.  Instead, North (whose degree was in history, not finance, economics, or accounting) earns a fairly good living giving financial investment advice, despite his abysmal record at historical forecasting.  Some of North’s failed predictions (collected by his enemies) are as follows:

 

1)  1980¾North warns that the Soviet union will “probably be in a position to launch a successful first strike against America’s undefended missiles.”  He counsels pastors to start new congregations, or laymen to leave their congregations, if this “extreme” message is too much for them.

 

2)  1980¾Predicts the dollar will be dead.  Predicts nuclear war is imminent, “probably within 48 months.”

 

3)  1984¾North claims the “barbarians are at the gates” and complains that the majority of pastors won’t counsel their congregations to prepare for “national disaster.”  Their reason: they don’t believe that the “law-order which prevailed in the Old Testament still has any effect.”

 

4)  1985¾World War III, countdown has begun.  As evidence, North points to a supposed “phased-array radar system” just completed by the Soviets, and claims that the Soviets have a “new anti-missile defense system in actual production.”

 

5)  1986¾North predicted debt crisis, involving collapse of banking system and new currency.  “The dollar will die,” North says, his second prediction of that occurrence.  He recommends buying gold and silver coins, tools, canned goods and dehydrated foods; also moving out of cities.

 

6)  1987¾“The Plague Has Come at Last,” by Gary North.  North predicted AIDS will kill about 100 million people, and that a major outbreak of the disease will occur among heterosexuals.  As a consequence, public schools will be abandoned, and blood tests will need to be administered at private schools to prevent contaminated kids from entering the schools.  According to North, millions of teenagers were virtually under a death sentence, and he repeats the urban legend about a man picking up a girl for a one night stand, and waking up the next morning to find written in lipstick on the mirror, “Welcome to the [wonderful] world of AIDS.”  North also repeats the claim that mosquitoes or bedbugs transmit the disease.

 

7)  1990¾Soviet liberalization under Gorbachev was merely a ruse to lull the West into being unprepared for the “final phase of the Soviet strategy against the West.”

 

8)  1998¾Y2k would result in the collapse of civilization.  It turned out that even those computers that failed to upgrade (in other words, ignored the warnings) had few, if any, problems.

 

One can find several more of North’s false prophecies at the Lew Rockwell website, where North has predicted, among other things, Bush’s election loss, the collapse of American “imperialism,” and so on.  Apparently, North believes he is under no obligation to apologize for his many failed predictions (save perhaps the Y2k fiasco).  If North wanted to sell beachfront property in Arizona, would it be wise to take him up on it?

 

North’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 28 plays a large part in his predictions about the future.  He asks the question, “Does God bring His positive and negative sanctions in New Covenant history?”  (Cf., Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy, 1991, p. 148.)  He wants to know whether these sanctions are predictable in terms of biblical law, and whether they are culture-wide.  He believes that a Christian’s answers to these questions will determine what social theory he holds.  According to North, “theonomists answer all three positively….”  Thus, North believes that God does apply sanctions or blessings in terms of the New Covenant, and that one can judge the future in terms of biblical law, and that these sanctions are culture wide.

 

In our view, all three of these are incorrect, but the last two rest upon the first one.  North’s first question involves the heart of covenant theology.  We might ask some questions ourselves.  Is the New Covenant a conditional covenant or a covenant of grace?  Is the New Covenant made with any particular nation or earthly kingdom?  Are modern polities subject to the Deuteronomic blessing-curse formulas?  Were ancient polities subject to them?

 

The view of the future advocated by North is known as “postmillennialism.”  This view is similar to amillennialism in that both regard eschatology as “intra-historical.”  (Cf., G.C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ, 1972, p. 297.)  In other words, both involve growth within history, whereas their main competitor, premillennialism, sees the millennium as extra-historical, an external intervention (or “rapture”) that puts and end to the normal course of events.  North has not left us in the dark about his view of the future.  He summarized it in 1989:

 

“[T]he covenant that God made with Israel has now been extended by God to the whole world….All people are now clearly under the ethical terms of the covenant (God’s Bible-revealed laws).  Thus, it is the task of Christians to warn people of the nature of this covenant—a sovereign God, a hierarchical system of governments, biblical laws, God’s sanctions in history and eternity, and God’s system of inheritance and disinheritance.”  (When Justice is Aborted, 1989, p. 12.)

 

The next year he published a book that made it even more clear: “God’s stipulations (laws), God’s historical sanctions, and God’s kingdom triumph in history are a unit.”  (Millennialism and Social Theory, 1990, pp. 39-40.)  In North’s view there are “inescapable connections linking biblical law, God’s historical sanctions, millennialism, and social theory.”  (Ibid., p. 93.)

 

This view of the future obviously involves a universalization of the Israelite covenant, which had blessings and sanctions attached to it.  If the covenant is universalized, so are the blessings and curses.  We reject this universalization.  But even ex hypothesi the analogy only goes so far, for Israel did not remain faithful.  So where does the notion of “God’s triumph in history” come from?  In actuality, the source of this historical triumphalism comes from North’s postmillennialism, not from his covenantalism.  In itself covenantalism does not guarantee material, social, or spiritual prosperity, only the means for achieving these things (faithfulness to the covenant).

 

Unfortunately, when it comes to eschatology, North is often long on rhetoric and short on exegesis.  And even on those occasions when he tries to defend his eschatological views by appeal to the Bible, his interpretations leave much to be desired.  He fails to realize, for instance, that prophecy (whether Old or New Testament) is a package-deal.  The prophet sees the end from the beginning, and does not separate the historical from the cosmic.  Prophecy therefore has both a proximal and a distal fulfillment.  Biblical prophecies are couched in terms of an agrarian paradise on the one hand, and in terms of a collapsing universe on the other.  St. John, who was given more light, was able to see the temporal distance between the historical and the cosmic (the symbolic thousand years).

 

North, however, believes in a transition from wrath to grace in history.  This phrase was originally applied by theologians against neo-orthodox theology for its denial that Christ’s death and resurrection took place in calendar history.  From his post-millennial angle, North attempts to enlist this soteriological concept for purposes of eschatological duty.  The idea of moving from wrath to grace in history now encompasses the replacement of a wrathful age of history with a golden age.

 

2.  The Millennium

 

John’s “thousand years” is called the “Millennium” which derives from Revelation 20.  In John’s vision, the events described in Rev. 20 are chronologically preceded by the symbolic fall of  Babylon (Rome) and the destruction of the beast (Nero).  The fact that the martyrs were beheaded for not worshipping the beast or his image suggests temporal succession, not merely a succession of ideas describing one event:

 

“Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands.  And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.  (But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.)  This is the first resurrection.  Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection.  Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.”  (Rev. 20:4-6.)

 

We learn at the end of Revelation 19 that after the destruction of the beast, the Devil or Satan is bound “for a thousand years.”  This binding of Satan parallels the thousand year reign of the martyrs.

 

What is John telling us in this great vision?  For one thing, the events in the vision had already started.  John is seeing the Christian martyrs of the first century A.D., who were put to death by Nero.  It is true that all who believe in Jesus to their dying day will be with Christ in heaven.  Nevertheless, John is particularly referring to the martyrs of the first century A.D. (such as, for example, St. Paul).  These have been “beheaded for their witness to Jesus” because they did not worship the divinity of the Roman Caesar.  It is they who “lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”  Thus, martyrdom is the first resurrection.

 

Instead of dying an ignoble death at the hands of the Roman state, these Christians were experiencing the first resurrection—the ascent of their souls to reign with Christ in heaven.  It had to be their souls, for they had been beheaded, and were therefore physically dead.  In addition, they could not have reigned with Christ in their physical bodies because the reunion of soul and body only takes place at the final judgment.  This (parenthetically) contrasts with those who had died naturally, but had never confessed Christ, or had never believed in him.  These are the “rest of the dead.”  Unlike the faithful witnesses, these men “did not live again” (did not experience the first resurrection) until the thousand years were finished.  Then they were subject to the second death (the lake of fire).

 

After the thousand years, Satan “will be released from his prison”  (Rev. 20:7).  The time of this release is “for a little while” (Rev. 20:3).  Satan deceives the nations, and they surround the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and God’s fire comes down to destroy them  (Rev. 20:9).  This is followed by the Great White Throne judgment, then a new heaven and new earth, and the descent of the New Jerusalem to the earth.

 

How much of a “golden age” can one read into the binding of Satan?  That he can no longer deceive the nations of the world tells us only that the nations of the world are on their own, so to speak.  When Nero died, Satan was bound, and all the evil that was wrought after the death of Nero was man’s own doing.  The devil doesn’t make man do it anymore.  Nevertheless, how much of a “positive” can one derive from this negative event?  Of course, this binding of Satan would prevent worldwide persecution of Christians from happening again for a very long time.  That is a wonderful thing.  At the end of the “thousand years,” however, the release of Satan will renew the earlier reign of terror against Christians, which will involve a worldwide persecution.  Thus the interim is relative to these two ferocious eras.  This relativity does not require any “golden age” between the two extremes (as postmillennialists believe), nor does it require the interim to be a bleak and gloomy era (as amillennialists believe).

 

In a sense, the interim, the time-between, is man’s era.  He is neither motivated and deceived by Satan, nor is he given any direct help from God (as in Rev. 21).  The world is now man’s to do with as he will, whether for good or ill.  Neither an age of gold nor an age of iron are off the table, so to speak, but the road to God is narrow no matter the age.  Given that there are all too many who prefer the broad way to the narrow, a spiritual utopia on this earth before the final day seems more a dream than a realistic eschatological hope.  And yet there is nothing preventing sustained economic growth and material improvement (except for man’s own greed or hate or wars).  One need not succumb to “lullabies of historical improvement” (Berkouwer) in order to be optimistic about the future.  Who can tell whether God will revive the hearts of men in the interim, as he has done in the past.  Is anything too hard for the Almighty?

 

3.  Minimum Utopia

 

The socialist writer Norman Geras points out that from the outset socialism was always utopian, and that despite the Marxist de-emphasis of “fantastic pictures of future societies” utopianism was still the only sufficient goal that could make current reality tolerable.  (Socialist Register, 2000.)  He grants that “maximum notions of utopia” have their place:  “It is in the liberating fantasy that yields a different vantage point from the one confining it and claiming the privilege, all too often, of being the sole realistic reality.”  Nevertheless, Geras things that socialists should now concentrate not on “ultimate liberation” but “on a world cured of its worst remediable deprivations and horrors.”  For Geras the goal should now be “modest or minimum utopia.”

 

What is a minimum utopia?  It is defined as “a condition in which people had enough to eat, adequate water, shelter, health care, and the fundamental rights of expression, belief and assembly; and in which they were free from arbitrary imprisonment, torture, ‘disappearance’, threat of genocide….”  Geras does not believe minimum utopia entails a rejection of socialism’s maximal goals, but he thinks a minimum utopia would be humanity’s “most magnificent accomplishment.”

 

Since capitalist countries by and large have already accomplished these goals, why is there any need for socialism?  Geras rejects this by calling attention to the “rolling catastrophe” that capitalism supposedly brings to the world’s population.  Most responsible people would think that socialism is the source of this catastrophe.  However, socialists prefer to commit the fallacy of juxtaposition.  They place on one side the complacent, aristocratic, and unconcerned rich, and on the other side the downtrodden, oppressed, and suffering poor.  Such a contrast is then played up for maximum demagogic effect.  The fallacy is that between these two extremes, at least in capitalist countries, the vast majority of people occupy a middle position on the curve, in which most are neither extremely rich nor extremely poor.  By fallaciously leaving out this great middle, socialists are able to convince people that socialism is necessary to ameliorate the harsh juxtaposition.

 

Geras thinks it is possible for a minimum utopia to be anti-capitalist but not anti-liberal.  He is concerned that socialists will believe minimum utopia “redefines socialism as reformed capitalism….” but he does not think it does that.  He also wants to create a “different moral culture” to sustain his minimum utopia, and believes it is necessary to “reshape moral consciousness.”  This supposedly involves a “transformation of values” and “new forms of social consciousness.”  For Geras, the world is so “replete with injustices” and complacency that we cannot wait for a “spontaneous” change in attitude, but must form a “vigorous culture of reciprocal help.”

 

Geras does not specify what means are to be used to accomplish this change in attitude but he does think it will require an “institutional framework in order to flourish, the framework of, among other things, a robust and self-active democracy….”  It is not clear what is meant by a “robust and self-active democracy” but it is the “among other things” that gives one pause.  In the past secret police and gulags were among those “other things.”  So until Geras specifies his utopia, we will remain skeptical of his minimum utopia.  Better to go with Friedrich Hayek’s “spontaneous order” of the market.  It may not be utopia, but it is at least “realistic” reality.

 

4.  Utopia versus Dystopia

 

Sam J. Lundwall caustically describes a characteristic of some utopias, namely that they are places where there is happiness, order, above all freedom from want, and where dissenters are shot on sight.  (Cf., Science Fiction: What It’s All About, 1971, p. 43.)  In this case, dissenters are regarded as threats to the happiness of the whole, and their destruction or marginalization is justified.  Some science fiction writers, of course, were not happy with utopias of this sort.  Suspended animation, matter-transmitters, weather control, universal peace, and unswerving obedience, make a fine utopia for some folks, but it is a situation that most science fiction writers do not prefer.  For instance, Lundwall takes issue with Plato’s The Republic for its near fascist (and abortionist) view of utopia, a virtual Gestapo society.  (Ibid., pp. 45-46.)

 

Not all utopias end up as dystopias.  Some, such as Thomas More’s communist Utopia, allow for some freedom, though atheists are usually not allowed.  “This, in a nutshell,” says Lundwall,” is the theory of Utopian life and code of conduct, not only for More’s novel, but for all Utopian societies: Think what you wish, but think right.”  (Ibid., p. 48.)  However, even non-utopian societies require some restraint within the social order, so this is hardly a convincing criticism of utopia. 

 

Lundwall catalogues some modern utopias where restraint is not a high priority.  Pornotopias abound today, for instance, where every sexual fantasy becomes possible (divided, I suppose, into heterotopias and homotopias).  According to Lundwall, the first big problem with all utopian literature is that “it is illogical and muddily thought-out” and second that “Utopias invariably are boring.”  (Ibid., p. 50.)  “If everything is tops, what is there to live for?”  There should always be a right to be unhappy, for the right to be unhappy is the antidote to madness in a too perfect, unrestrained, world.

 

Lundwall points out the modern science-fiction writers are “commendably suspicious”  toward their “ideal states.”  (Ibid., p. 51.)  This is based on the “sound assumption that man will continue to be what he is, even though his environment will change.  He will neither be saint nor slave, and the Utopia must be constructed according to this.”  (Idem.)  This suspicion is not always enough for some writers.  H. G. Well’s A Modern Utopia is a welfare state “governed by the usual Utopian rational elite….”  (Ibid., p. 53.)  It is, as David Lodge said, “the paradise of little fat men.”  (Idem.)

 

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a dystopia of a drugged and enslaved humanity, effected by the apathy drug Soma.  (Ibid., p. 59.)  George Orwell’s famous Nineteen Eighty Four (1949) is probably one of the worst dystopias on record, where even romantic love fails to rise above the miasma of totalitarianism.  Strangely, when it comes to dystopias, there is a certain amount of moral equivalency among leftist commentators that is hard to fathom.  For instance, instead of comparing Orwell’s nightmare society to Communist countries, Lundwall compares it to “multi-national corporations” in western capitalist countries  Indeed, capitalist advertising is especially evil, and is compared to the thought control exercised by O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty Four.  “If you want a picture of the future,” says O’Brien, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”  Lundwall says:  “It hardly matters much to the victim if the boot bears the sign of a Swastika or a Coca Cola bottle.”  (Ibid., p. 62.)  It does matter, though.  It matters a great deal.

 

Lundwall discusses Robert A. Heinlein’s science-fiction and describes his Future History Series as “a grand collection of stories and novels that charts an ultra-reactionary future that might make Senator Goldwater giddy with joy.”  (Ibid., p. 64.)  Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) involves a society of the future where everyone is trained in the military in order to gain the right to vote.  “Now, this sounds like a thoroughly fascist state,” says Lundwall, “and Starship Troopers has been subjected to murderous criticism in sf circles….I would rather leave than love a country run along the lines of Heinlein’s Utopia.”  (Ibid., p. 68.)  The militaristic nature of Starship Troopers derives from a) Heinlein’s service in the military, and b) his reaction to a pacifist, disarmament movement.  Lundwall apparently thinks it is better to be red than dead.  I looked through Lundwall’s chapters on utopias and dystopias, and while there are references to fascism, Wild West movies, the Green Berets (“the worst killers”), James Bond, Donald Duck (!), capitalist advertising and big corporations, only a handful of sentences were devoted to Communism and Russia, none to Cuba, North Korea, or Communist China.  Instead, the brief mention of Soviet repression is immediately equated with censorship in rightist Spain.  (Cf., Ibid., p. 71.)

 

Nevertheless, despite a lack of balance on the subject, Lundwall ended on a wise note, i.e., that dystopianism comes down to the same thing as utopianism, both being :

 

“…an inability to face the present world.  The anti-Utopian novel is interesting, and as a means of powerful social criticism, unsurpassed.  It should be read with a pinch of salt, though.  The future isn’t all sour grapes.”  (Science Fiction: What It’s All About, p. 73.)

 

5.  Amillennial Dystopia

 

Gary North rightly skewers John Muether’s view that the common grace order is unpredictable.  Muether, from his amillennial perspective, had argued that material blessing or reward are “experienced unpredictably through the inscrutable sovereignty of God’s will.”  (Quoted in North, Ibid., p. 154.)  North, however, drew the wrong lesson from this.  Instead of arguing that unpredictability is not a characteristic of the common grace order, he misconstrues it by saying it is governed by biblical law.  In other words he makes the common grace order coincident with the Mosaic covenant.

 

Under the common grace order, however, there is no covenant that can be universalized to all mankind.  Nor is there biblical law that can apply in exhaustive detail.  The common grace order involves general moral laws (i.e., natural laws), not the specific judicial case laws of Moses.

 

North is right to chastise amillennialists for their undue pessimism.  This does not mean, however, that North’s postmillennial dreams are any more acceptable.  It merely shows that amillennialists have overstated their case.  There is nothing in the Bible that tells us that the “time-between” is a dystopia.  Rather, the Bible tells us that the dystopian pogroms occur before the beginning of the Millennium, and then, after the “thousand years” are up, at which point universal persecution begins anew.  Contrary to both pessimists and optimists, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a wheat field, where tares are introduced into the field by an enemy.  Postmillennialists have argued that because this is a wheat field, not a tare field, it must be referring to a world in which Christians are in the vast majority, i.e., a golden age.  However, Jesus is talking about quality rather than quantity.  The quality of the field is what is important¾it is a field of mixed quality.  The whole point of not gathering the tares is that they are entangled with the wheat and the destruction of one would lead to the destruction of the other.  This does not sound much like a golden age, but rather more like a middling age.  But a middling age is better than universal pogroms.

 

North often uses the term “pessimillennialist” to describe non-postmillennialists.  Putting aside the cheap insult for a moment (would “optimillennialist” be the antonym?), we can agree that North has raised an important question.  If one’s eschatology is pessimistic, what is the motivation for progress?  The sociologist Robert Nisbet has documented the importance of the idea of progress in Western history, especially in relation to the progress of arts and sciences.  He cites the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Sect. 8 as representative:

 

“The Congress shall have power…to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

 

“Clearly,” says Nisbet, “in the judgment of the makers of the Constitution, nothing was more important by way of generating and advancing American prosperity and well-being than security given to the creative mind.”  (History of the Idea of Progress, 1980, p. 203.)  We could also mention the debates over “internal improvements” which exercised the minds of such founders as Hamilton and Jefferson.  Interest in progress can be seen very clearly in the 1893 Crystal Exhibition Palace, and the Chicago Fair.  (Ibid., p. 204.)  World fairs became events where exhibits were set up to show the latest in scientific, technical, and architectural progress.  In many ways the theme park, “Disney Land” reflects this belief in, and celebration of, progress (especially in the “Tomorrow Land” exhibit).  So amillennialists are rightly criticized for their neglect of motivation and of the psychology of success.

 

6.  Malthusian Eschatology

 

Thomas Malthus had argued that the level of population increases at a greater rate than the level of subsistence resources.  Thus mankind was condemned to poverty and hardship.  Malthus has been vilified by Carlyle for turning economics into a “dismal science” (though J. S. Mill was the immediate target).  Some credit (or discredit) Malthus by associating him with Darwinian “natural selection” or with anti-charity measures.  He even appears to have been the source for Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge.  On the other hand, the theoretician of “Austrian economics,” Ludwig von Mises, defended Malthus (primarily as the principle philosopher of evolution).  Mises pointed out that the problem of overpopulation was solved in capitalist countries because men lost their “zoological impulses” as they moved up the economic ladder.  Rational man, unlike animals, has a value scale, and reproduction is ranked on that scale.  As soon as men move from the poorest levels of society into the middle levels, they decrease the size of their respective families.  They begin to see the costs associated with large families, and begin to practice contraception.  Thus, there is no basis in economics for gloominess about the future.

 

Note: In the process of discussing Malthus, von Mises attacked the natural law and natural rights philosophy of the founding fathers of America.  He did so in the name of Darwinism, the “biological philosophy of society.”  (Human Action, p. 174.)  According to Mises, liberalism (popular government, private property, tolerance, freedom) should be based not on natural rights but on “social utility.”  “The Utilitarians,” says Mises, “do not combat arbitrary government and privileges because they are against natural law but because they are detrimental to prosperity.”  (Ibid., p. 175.)  And if tolerance or private property were found to be “detrimental to prosperity” would this mean they would have to be tossed out?  Unfortunately, Mises does not discuss the measuring-stick of what types of “prosperity” are good or bad.  In addition, he somehow manages to enlist Malthus against the doctrine of natural rights:

 

“Malthus showed that nature in limiting the means of subsistence does not accord to any living being a right of existence, and that by indulging heedlessly in the natural impulse of proliferation man would never have risen above the verge of starvation.”  (Human Action, p. 175.)

 

This should explain perhaps why some libertarians are hostile to America.   Their master, von Mises, attempted to undermine the very basis for American civilization—natural law and natural rights—and wanted it replaced with what is, in our opinion, an uncertain utilitarian calculus.  The founding fathers, however, never separated natural rights from “prosperity” but regarded the “pursuit of happiness” itself as a natural right.  The utilitarian notion of “common interest” certainly had priority over “special interests” in the views of the fathers, but it was never set in opposition to the individual pursuit of happiness.  In other words, the founding fathers, including Jefferson, rejected the concept of normless freedom, for that is what is entailed by utilitarianism.  (Recall the distinction Jefferson made between opinions and actions, holding that the government could control the latter, though not the former.)

 

One of Malthus’ critics was Henry George, who quite perceptively argued that man, unlike animals, actually increases resources.  An animal will kill for food and decrease the population of the herd.  Man, however, with a view to the future, increases the stock of such animals, thus creating a larger subsistence base.  Interestingly, George believed that something as simple as a single tax on land would usher in what he himself called a “golden age.”  There is no need to adopt simplistic measures to achieve utopia on earth, but as long as we remain capitalistic in our economic arrangements, the prospects for the future look bright.  We need not worry about Malthus having the last laugh, either, for Henry George really gets the last laugh on this one, golden age or no.

 

7.  The Grounds for Optimism

 

If defeat is the guaranteed outcome (as it is in so much premillennial and amillennial prophetic speculation), why engage in culture at all?  Why not just isolate oneself from the world in quietistic contemplation?  “Why polish brass on a sinking ship?” goes the refrain.

 

This pessimism can be seen in those who assume that the new heaven and new earth at the end of history will result in an annihilation of the world.  In its place there is supposed to be a new world created ex nihilo, with no continuity with the old world.  Those who accept this view argue that it is the only way to give full value to the seriousness of death.  G. C. Berkouwer points out, however, that judgment does not have to result in such a drastic discontinuity.  In 2 Peter 3:6 we read that the world in Noah’s day “perished,” but this perishing did not entail the obliteration of the world.  Berkouwer regards annihilationism to be too spiritualistic:

 

“Thus arises a crass form of personalism and spiritualism which considers things to be of no importance in the coming glorification.”  (The Return of Christ, 1972, p. 226.)

 

The result of this view is that the “meaning of life on this earth breaks down.”  (Ibid., p. 227.)  In other words, if the world is going to be annihilated, what is the point of doing anything to improve culture?  Will culture not also be burned up in the great judgment? 

 

Against this view, Berkouwer argues that the burning of the heavens and earth is not an annihilation, but a purification in the sense of refinement.  All the bad things will be burned away, but all the goods things will remain.  Thus, there really is good reason for optimism regarding culture¾for not all of it will be destroyed.  “[O]ne is on the wrong track,” says Berkouwer, “if out of his desire to see God he allows the vision of the new earth to fade away into an incomprehensible and superfluous eschatological mystery.”  (Idem.)  This “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) will be replaced in an eschatological crisis but, in Berkouwer’s opinion, it will not be a total dissolution of the world.  He relates that Eduard Thurneysen in 1931 spoke of the new world as being made up of forest and fields, and cities and streets.  Berkouwer declines to speculate in such concrete terms, but thinks it is “[b]etter the extreme concreteness of Thurneysen than dualistic spiritualizing of the expectation….”  (Ibid., p. 232.) 

 

We agree that the good things of this world will remain, but it is difficult to deny that according to the New Testament, this earth will be obliterated.  St. Peter, for instance, speaks of the last judgment in terms of a great conflagration, wherein the “elements will melt with a fervent heat,” and “the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10).  This is similar to Paul’s view, that at the last judgment, Jesus will be revealed from heaven in “flaming fire” taking vengeance upon his enemies (2 Thess. 1:7).  St. John also speaks of a fire that comes down from God and devours Gog and Magog (Rev. 20:9).  Somewhat less drastic is Paul’s description, in the book of Hebrews, of a shaking of the earth and of heaven, and that it is for the purpose of “removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain” (Heb. 12:27).  The obliteration of this world, or universe, does not mean that the good cultural products of this age will be lost forever.  God can preserve that which is good in terms of art, architecture, sculpture, music, and literature, while at the same time destroying the earth and heavens, replacing them with a new heaven and earth.  The things that cannot be shaken will remain, and that in itself gives us grounds for optimism about the present pursuit of culture.  It also reminds us of the high seriousness of culture.

 

8.  Conclusion

 

We said at the beginning of our essay series that North’s version of covenant theology is a Utopian folly.  He really believes that a golden age is guaranteed in this life prior to the eschaton.  He has expended an enormous amount of rhetoric affirming the reality of this golden age, and condemning those who disagree.  North’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 28 is the basis for his utopian vision.  If men obey the law of God in exhaustive detail, they can expect divine blessings, and this will lead to the golden society of the future.  North criticizes biblical commentators for restricting the sanctions of Deuteronomy 28 to the land of Israel:  “They do not acknowledge that these threatened corporate sanctions carry into the New Covenant.”  (Biblical Economics Today, Feb/Mar, 1999.)

 

Nevertheless, the history of Israel shows that there is no guarantee that nations will obey these laws.  North needs something else, and this something is an eschatological theory known as postmillennialism.  This view of the future is based on an interpretation of Revelation 20 that, in our opinion, seems problematic.

 

It is North’s belief that covenantalism, biblical law, and postmillennialism are inextricably intertwined.  In holding this position, he is at odds with his former colleague Greg Bahnsen, who pointed out that an ethical ought does not necessarily imply an eschatological is.  Call it North’s version of the naturalistic fallacy.

 

Our criticism of North should not cause us to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  He makes some good criticisms of amillennialists for their undue pessimism, though this does not entail that postmillennialism is true.  Still, cultural optimism is a good thing, as the Constitution intimates.  Pessimistic economic theories, such as those of Malthus, should not be used to undermine the notion of progress.  The predicted Malthusian population nightmare has not happened in capitalist countries.  Technology, industry, and changing attitudes among those moving into the mid-range of the economy decrease population pressures, while increasing both subsistence levels, and consumer preference levels.

 

In addition, we can be optimistic about our cultural work, even if the earth is destroyed and a new one put in its place.  Our good cultural works are those that can stand up to divine shaking, and they will remain by the grace of God.

 

North’s vision will never happen.  It was tried by the Puritans.  It did not work for them, and it will not work for us.  North’s vision is utopian, and the theonomic society is a utopian society.  It is a “Brave New World,” dressed up in clerical collar and surplice.  It offers biblical law in exhaustive detail as the new soma that ushers in the golden age of a new “kingdom of freedom.”  Such an ideal society this side of heaven may quickly turn into a dystopia, where theonomic gulags and covenantal secret police would be employed to rout out all dissenters.  It would involve a transition from grace to wrath in history.

 

9.  Appendix: The Utopian Idea in America

 

In 1630, while on board the Arbella, the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, gave a mid-ocean sermon:  “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”  Moreover, “we are entered into Covenant with him for this work”  Historian Alan Simpson took a negative view of this covenant idea:

 

“What this decision came to mean was the tribalization of the Puritan spirit.  The goals of regeneration and sanctification, common to Puritans everywhere, were to be sought within a tribal community.”  (Puritanism in Old and New England, 1955, p. 24.)

 

The notion of a “tribalization of the Puritan spirit” seems true enough, but the more basic problem is the concept of an isolation of the chosen people from the world.  Just as ancient Israel was meant to be under the Mosaic law, and a nation set apart from all the other nations¾Egyptians, Babylonians, Philistines, Hittites¾so also the modern covenanted polity would isolate itself with respect to the “pagans” of the modern day¾i.e., their fellow Christians!  Hence, the essence of covenantalism in terms of its social or political manifestation involves the notion of separation.

 

“The basic reality in their life was the analogy with the Children of Israel.  They conceived that by going out into the Wilderness, they were reliving the story of Exodus and not merely obeying an explicit command to go into the wilderness.”  (Boorstin, The Americans, p. 19.)

 

In addition, the chosen nation sees itself as having a destiny.  This destiny involves a characteristic triumphalism, wherein the chosen people are seen as vanquishing all of their foes, or ruling over their enemies.  Unlike in England, the Puritans maintained a rigid exclusion of unorthodox sects in New England, even executing a couple of harmless if annoying Quakers.  “In New England,” says Boorstin, “the critics, doubters, and dissenters were expelled from the community; in England the Puritans had to find ways of living with them.  It was in England, therefore, that a modern theory of toleration began to develop.”  (The Americans, p. 8.)

 

As the history of the Puritans demonstrates, one main problem in applying covenantalism to politics is that everything becomes a matter of good versus evil, rather than a matter of some interests in conflict with other interests.  In constitutionalism, it is a setting of interest against interest rather than of good against evil.  In addition, covenants are perpetual and any change in the covenant is seen as covenant-breaking.  Constitutionalism, however, allows a process of change, and does not regard all amendments to the governing charter as Constitution-breaking, or as treason.

 

Finis

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