Douglas Wilson. Mere Christendom. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2023. 280 pp. $21.95.
Douglas Wilson stands in an intriguing place in contemporary Evangelicalism. His reach and influence are significant, and even folks who enjoy his writings and podcasts might be nervous or hesitant to bespeak such things. “Doug who? No, um, uh, I never read or listen to Wilson. What kind of person do you take me to be?” For my part, I have benefitted from reading Wilson for many years. And one can benefit from reading someone even if one has a number of points of disagreement.
Even if one disagrees with Wilson (in much or in little), he is a joy to read. He has real wit, is a wordsmith, and knows how to skewer foolishness. He does not hem or haw—I mean he really does not hem or haw. If you are a middle-aged or older evangelical leader and you wonder why the young Christian men in your circles are reading or listening to or watching Douglas Wilson, you should read this book.
As Wilson notes at the beginning of Mere Christendom, this book began as a series of blog posts. His grandson Knox Merkle helped take a number of Wilson’s blog posts and draw them together, and then Wilson took that and produced this book.
The thesis is straightforward: “I argue here for a principled abandonment of the disastrous experiment of secularism, and for a corporate confession of the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, and all done in such a way as to preserve our liberties” (xi).
Part 1: “Where We Are Now”
The book is divided into four sections of roughly sixty pages each. Part 1 is something of a brush-clearing exercise. Wilson makes the kinds of points he has made for many years and here and there attributes (at least aspects of) his thinking to the likes of Calvin, Kuyper, and Rushdoony. In short, secularism is wicked and is not religiously neutral. Thus, we already have a kind of religion at the heart of public life—the religion of secularism. He rightly notes that if democracy is really the key, why would secularists mind if enough Christians democratically chose to re-instate Blue Laws (where businesses would be closed on Sundays) and the like? Wilson is having fun, and (I am pretty sure) good-naturedly poking holes in the secularist worldview.
Part 2: “Mere Christendom”
Part 2 begins more explicitly to make the case for mere Christendom, which he defines as
a network of nations bound together by a formal, public, civic acknowledgment of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the fundamental truth of the Apostles’ Creed. I mean a public and formal recognition of the authority of Jesus Christ that repudiates the principles of secularism, and that avoids both hard sectarianism and easy latitudinarianism. (69)
This might shock some Christians, especially Baptists (of which I am one). But Wilson deserves his due. Perhaps his strongest rhetorical point is one to which he often turns: any social or political order will always be rooted in some set of transcendent commitments, and these are always ultimately religious. Hence, we always have—in one sense—a theocracy. The question, then, is “not whether, but which.” That is, it is not a matter of “whether we will be governed by Christ, but rather which christ we will be governed by. The Lordship of Christ is not an option that we might select from a row of numerous options. It is Christ or chaos. It is Christ or Antichrist” (70).
Within part 2, Wilson provides a “Brief Scattershot Primer on Christian Nationalism” (ch. 6). For those who are not following this debate, there is a lively discussion in the US on the question of Christian Nationalism, with Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022) being central to this discussion [I have critically reviewed Wolfe’s book for Christ Over All here and here]. Wilson is a gifted and sharp polemicist and rhetorician. His view, put simply, is this: “I am a Christian and I do love my nation. . . . What shall we call that?” (84). The answer, for Wilson, is “Christian Nationalism.” However, Wilson is clear that Christian Nationalism is not to be confused with Mere Christendom. What, then, is the difference and relationship between them? “Mere Christendom is the sum total of lots of smaller Christian nationalisms” (87). I think Stephen Wolfe and Wilson are actually engaging in quite different projects. Wilson is a Bible guy; Wolfe is engaged in a quite different undertaking: a kind of syllogism (built upon the idea that the civil magistrate ought to lead his people toward their spiritual good—which ultimately is Christianity), and which builds on Wolfe’s understanding of “grace perfecting nature” (i.e., he is engaging in kind of Thomistic project, largely rooted in the maxim: “grace perfects nature”).
And Wilson knows both his history and his US Constitution well enough to know that the first amendment prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion, and when the Constitution was ratified, a number of states already gave official sanction to a particular Christian denomination. Hence, a simple appeal to the first amendment of the US Constitution is not adequate—at least by itself—to defeat Wilson’s argument for a more explicitly Christian social order.
Part 3: “Lies About Mere Christendom”
Part 3 continues the polemic by making the case for Christendom. Wilson begins by tackling the question: Wouldn’t it be oppressive? His reply is astute: “But what happens if we stay with secularism? Well, it is just possible, for example, that we might find ourselves in mandatory celebrations of the kind of sodomite practices that got the attention of the avenging angel of the Lord for the cities of the plain. We might find ourselves dismembering millions of babies. What if something like that were to happen?” (128). Again, Wilson reveals that he is a gifted communicator.
Part 3 also includes some of Wilson’s most interesting reflections on the Bible and hermeneutics. In this part of the book, and elsewhere, he describes himself as a “‘general equity’ theonomist” (165) or a “theocratic libertarian” (120) who affirms “Christocentric Theonomy” (177). “General equity” comes from the Westminster Confession 19.4, which reads: “To them [i.e., to Israel] also, as a body politic, He [i.e., God] gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” I think Wilson is wanting here a kind of theonomy which is more attuned to how the wisdom of Old Testament law might be brought to bear on the present—but doing so in a more nuanced way (perhaps) than the theonomy of yesteryear. Wilson, with the term “theocratic libertarian,” essentially means (I believe) that the civil government should generally not engage in any activity unless Scripture explicitly (or implicitly?) gives it the authority to do so.
I think by “Christocentric Theonomy” Wilson is attempting to bring Christ a bit more front and center than might have been the case with the theonomy of a few decades ago. I would encourage the reader to read this section slowly. Wilson is doing something a bit different from his predecessors like R. J. Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen. Wilson seems like he is enjoying the ride and knows this all may take quite a while. As a postmillennialist, he is happy to wait things out. “We have plenty of time,” he says (179). Wilson certainly is rooted in the theonomy tradition, but seems to me to have modified that over the years. A “general equity theonomist” inches closer, I suspect, to what many folks subscribing to the Westminster Standards might affirm (though many would rather steer clear of the term “theonomy”).
Part 4: “How to Restore Christendom”
In part 4, Wilson continues the argument, spending significant space on historical issues. He rightly argues that the American War for Independence (1775–1783) and the French Revolution (began in 1789), though closely related in time, were very different kinds of wars. In a sense, the American War for Independence was not a revolution—in that no one went to Westminster to execute the king. Rather, it was a kind of war of secession. Wilson is advocating a (likely) slow change, rooted in reformation and revival. This will be centered in faithful preaching and teaching, hopefully leading to personal repentance and social transformation. Such events will lead people to ask: What difference does the Lordship of Christ mean for all of life?
Wilson is a talented orator and debater, but he is also a Bible guy. In a recent podcast for Christ Over All, I asked Wilson about this, for I discern in him a different emphasis to that which I discerned in the writings of Bahnsen, Rushdoony, and Gary North some 35 years ago. Wilson was raised a good Southern Baptist. In fact, I wonder if that background does not percolate through, here and there, in his thinking. That is, Wilson does not seem interested in the least in seizing power for this or that political entity or taking over school boards or rushing to change this or that law. Rather, he is happy to take his own time with his Bible and postmillennialism in hand, believing that as God has mercy on people they must eventually ask: does all of this Christian stuff have any influence on how I think, how I vote, and what the various forms of government promote or forbid?
If “Christendom” simply means the attempt to apply the lordship of Christ in every realm of life, most Christians (at least the more or less Reformed folks) will have little problem with this. If “Christendom” implies a kind of established state religion, many will be rather skeptical—including (and especially) Baptists. Baptists (and many others) will rightly perhaps chafe at the word “Christendom,” since it conjures up a close (entangling?) relationship between the civil magistrate and the Christian Church. Can one be a Baptist and still hold out for Christendom? If a Baptist does want to hold out for such a reality (i.e., Christendom), it would likely need to be a different kind of Christendom from what has been seen before—one where various local churches (apart from Rome) grow and begin to influence the world around them. This influence would be non-coercive, and not as interested in the use of the sword. It would likely foster Christian educational institutions (from the youngest ages through graduate education). It would be eager to send missionaries around the world to evangelize and plant churches. It would indeed seek to remind the civil magistrate that a civil ruler is “God’s servant . . . a servant of God” (Rom. 13:4); the civil ruler is an “avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4); and such civil magistrates are “ministers of God” (Rom. 13:6).
Most of us would like to see people come to faith, families seek to live out the lordship of Christ, schools seek to live out the lordship of Christ, to see persons apply the lordship of Christ to their businesses, their relationships, their use of discretionary income, etc. But many will want to think especially hard about how the lordship of Christ effects thinking about statecraft. Wilson could have written essentially the same book and called it something like Mere Christian Worldview, or Mere Lordship of Christ, etc. But the word “Christendom” will understandably make some skittish.
Many years ago I heard Tony Evans give a talk at regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Pastor Evans was asked a question about all of his efforts to pastor, help with Christian schooling, provide mercy ministries to poorer people in his area, and the other myriad admirable projects he was engaged in. Someone asked (and I paraphrase here): “Pastor Evans, you are dispensationalist and not a postmillennialist. If we know Jesus is going to return before the millennium, why engage in so many acts of mercy and various social ministries?” His response was quite impressive: “Whether my various efforts are consistent with my eschatology, I don’t know. All I know is what the Bible says. I am commanded to engage in these kinds of ministries of mercy, so that is what I going to do.” Was Pastor Evans trying to build “Christendom”? Probably not. He was simply trying to be, even if he did not use the term, a kind of Reformed Kuyperian—he was trying to apply Christ’s lordship to “every inch” of life as best as he knew. Wilson is essentially doing a very similar thing, in general. He, however, combines his various efforts with a commitment to postmillennialism as well as a version of theonomy—and the latter will make his critics especially nervous.
If secularism continues in our day to run roughshod over any semblance of moral dignity and moral sanity, it is going to be interesting to see how Christians—especially evangelicals—respond. If Aaron Renn is correct that we now live in a “Negative World”—one in which our culture has adopted a negative view of Christianity, what is going to emerge out of this era? As Christians continue to find themselves on the ropes on any number of issues, they are naturally asking very basic questions: how did we get here, and how do we now live? What ought to replace secularism? Christians who don’t follow Wilson should still read him. And if they are not persuaded by his answers, they should then attempt to think through for themselves what exactly the Lordship of Christ does mean in every realm. The term “Christendom” may not be attractive to many, and understandably so. Nonetheless, I would encourage Christians to read and engage Wilson and learn from him and not simply glibly dismiss him.
Bradley G. Green
Jackson, Tennessee, USA