Review of Empires of Dirt

For the last several years I have spent a lot of time thinking through the question, how do we, as Christians, live within and respond to culture? As I have worked out these issues, I have had Douglas Wilson’s Empires of Dirt recommended to me a couple of times. The freedom of a PhD program, Corona virus lockdown, and the occasion of a new book project on the subject has given me the opportunity to give it a read and review. In sum, I was not persuaded that Wilson’s “Mere Christendom” is a Biblical ideal. For this review, I will offer a brief summary of the book and an evaluation. The evaluation section will be a touch longer than usual, because of my current interest in the topic at hand, but a full address of the issues involved in Wilson’s proposal will have to await the project mentioned above.

Summary: Towards a Mere Christendom

Essentially, Wilson wants to offer a postmillennial political alternative to the extremes of Secularism and Radical Islam. Secularism is the false claim to religious neutrality in the public square; in reality, it is an alternate religion that does not proclaim the Lordship of Christ. Radical Islam is the totalitarian claims of Allah and his prophet over the all life, including the state. Wilson’s alternative is a “mere Christendom,” “a network of nations bound together by a formal, public, civic acknowledgement of the lordship of Jesus Christ and the fundamental truth of the Apostle’s Creed” (pg. 7, loc. 101).1 His focus is America, his home, and the prospects for achieving this goal in this nation. He does not envision a drastic revolution but a slow, patient change brought about by churches and Christians living faithfully and interacting in the political sphere in submission to Christ (195-196, loc. 2473-2488). There is a general progression in his argument but it is not purely linear, involving general meditations on these themes—Secularism, Radical Islam, and Mere Christendom.

Chapter 1 & Chapter 3 take up Secularism and Radical Islam, with a particular focus on Wilson’s American context. Secularism in America is the false religion of American Exceptionalism, or Americanism. Chapters 2, 4, and 5 address alternative Christian proposal to these two extremes. Chapter 2 considers “Christ and Culture,” concluding that anything less than Christ’s total Lordship over the World proclaimed and lived out is unchristian. Chapter 4 considers the Anabaptist approach to culture, an approach that Wilson identifies in many of his Reformed peers. Wilson picks Gregory Boyd as his conversation partner for this chapter. Chapter 5 is the most extensive interaction with an opposing view, arguing against the Reformed Two Kingdoms position expounded especially by the faculty at Westminster Seminary California. Interacting particularly with Jason Stellman’s Dual Citizen and James Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, Wilson argues that the Two Kingdoms view is inconsistent with historical Reformed theology and is essentially unlivable.

In the remaining chapters, Wilson argues for and explains his “Mere Christendom” proposal. His positive argument is grounded in the present reign of Christ and His Lordship over all things and the postmillennial view that history is inevitably progressing towards the full realization of God’s kingdom on Earth. He places emphasis on the clause “to the nations” in the great commission, namely, the call to teach and baptize all nations, taken to be “the people, the tribe, the whole unit” (pg. 94, Loc. 1204). This includes calling for and seeing kings repent and seeking to declare and establish Christ’s authority in these nations. He correlates this passage with the many Old Testament references to the Christ’s eternal reign over all nations. This is what Wilson attempts, but I am not persuaded by his proposal.

Evaluation of a Mere Christendom Proposal

My issues with Wilson’s Empires of Dirt are extensive, but I will restrict myself to commenting on three areas: 1) the nature of Wilson’s rhetoric and argument; 2) his exegesis (and lack thereof) of Biblical texts; 3) and the problems of applying Wilson’s proposal. (Each of these issues will be dealt with  more extensively when I get to the project I mentioned above.)

The Argument and Rhetoric of Empires

As I mentioned already, I found Wilsons’ argument to be unclear. The book would be a lot stronger if there was a careful map explaining the structure and progression of the book’s argument. In addition to a generally unclear progression, Wilson’s writing style is very aggressive. Elsewhere he has defended the use of satire, but the “serrated edge” of his rhetoric is uncharitable and does not commend itself to those who are unsympathetic to Wilson’s proposal. Possibly as a result of his style, Wilson’s treatment of alternate approaches is neither charitable nor rigorous; often the object of his criticism is a straw man. For example, it is untenable to suggest that only a postmillennial transformationalist approach can justify its belief in the Lordship of Christ. I agree with Wilson that the anabaptist approach proposed by Boyd and the Reformed Two Kingdoms views are not consistently biblical, yet I can appreciate what there are attempting. At least with regard to the R2K view (this acronym stands for “Radical Two Kingdoms” in Wilson’s parlance), Meredith Kline, Michael Horton, David VanDrunen, et al. legitimately see their view as a holding a robust view of Christ’s Lordship and have some biblical reason for thinking so. In each case, it appears to me that Wilson fails to sympathize with or “enter” the perspective of these thinkers and understand why they say what they are saying. I believe he is right in identifying many weaknesses in the R2K position, but his critique does not come across as careful, considered, or generous. In these ways, Wilson appears to be speaking to the choir. His argument will resonate with those already sympathetic to his position but will not persuade many who are aligned otherwise. Beyond just the manner of argument, the use of Scripture in Empires contributes to this general un-persuasiveness.

The Exegesis of Empires

For a book seeking to offer a Biblical proposal over against the unbiblical, even “heretical,” positions of American Secularism and Radical Islam, Empires of Dirt is lacking in thorough Biblical argument. The first interaction with Scripture begins on Page 78 (Loc. 974, almost a third of the way into the book). Here, Wilson interacts with Boyd’s claim that “Jesus three times refers to Satan as the ‘ruler of this world’ (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).” Boyd understands “ruler” to be a distinctly political word, so Satan is the political ruler of the entire world. Wilson counters that Boyd is picking up on the word and not actually dealing with “what the verses he cites are actually saying” (78, Loc. 974). Is Boyd totally wrong, though? Wilson argues that in context, Satan is “cast out,” “judged,” and has “no claim on” Christ. Does this mitigate Boyd’s point? The difficulty here is that later in the New Testament, Satan is still called the “ruler” and even “god” of this World (2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2, 6:4). This is the case, even after Satan has been bound (Mark 3:27, Rev 20:1-3) and cast out of heaven (Luke 10:18).

This is not simply a case of what these verses “are actually saying”; instead, Boyd and Wilson have alternate interpretations of Jesus’s defeat of Satan. Revelation 20 and Mark 3 are clear about what they mean: Satan is bound with reference to deceiving “the nations”; Satan being bound, Christ can plunder his kingdom. Wilson’s reference to the D-day landing in Normandy is actually a fitting analogy for what is going on here: on the Cross, Christ secured victory over Satan and made provision for the Gospel to go forth to all peoples—gentiles and Jews alike (see the context of John 12:31). Jesus’s final victory is guaranteed but not yet realized in this world. The book of Revelation echoes Ephesians 6:4 in describing the entire span of history from now until Christ’s return as one of warfare between Satan—thrown out of heaven but still at the helm of Babylon—and the people of God, persecuted yet enduring for the Sake of Christ. This warfare comes to an end when Christ comes on the clouds, strikes down Babylon, and throws Satan and his followers into the lake of fire (Revelation 19-21). In essence, the problem is not exegesis—though on these verses, I am sympathetic to Boyd—but the overarching paradigm of what Christ’s present reign means and how His heavenly rule will be realized on earth. The few texts to which Wilson turns to make the positive argument for his postmillennial interpretation are unpersuasive.

First, he makes much of the use of “the nations” in the great commission (94-95, Loc. 1199-1215). However, rarely in the New Testament—or the entire Bible—does “nation” refer to anything like a modern social-political nation. In a sense, a “nation” in the Bible describes some sort of unity among diverse peoples: it could be an ethnic unity, a kingdom, a religious group, etc. Often in the New Testament, especially in the plural (“the nations”), it means the non-Jewish world (“gentiles”). So, when Jesus says that Christians are to go out and make disciples of the nations, He does not mean socio-political entities but all people in all their diverse social standings, ethnicities, locations, and current religious affiliations (cf. Matt 6:32, 25:32; Mark 13:10; Luke 12:30; Luke 24:47; etc.). No implications can be drawn from this commission for Wilson’s “Mere Christendom” proposal; the Great Commission is neither an argument against it (unless an argument of conspicuous absence) nor an argument for it.

Second, he argues that the portrait of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 represents “the Christian Church, being gradually manifested through the course of history,” not “a figure of Heaven, the final eternal state” (80-81, Loc 997-1014). I wholeheartedly agree that Revelation’s “New Jerusalem” is the Church (not the Christian Church however: it is God’s people throughout History). However, it is both the Church AND the final state. That is, in Revelation, the New Jerusalem is not the Church “gradually manifested”; it is the Church perfected. Revelation is notoriously unchronological; however, the vision of New Jerusalem descending from Heaven is clearly indicated as the final state. In the preceding chapters, John’s cyclical description of the history of the Church Age comes to climactic end with the definitive description of Christ’s victory, in Revelation 19-20. After Christ destroys the forces opposing His rule and people, we are told of the resurrection and final judgment (Revelation 20). After  Satan is finally defeated (Rev 20:7-10, a recapitulation of Revelation 19), all opposition of God is thrown into the lake of fire, the second death. This is the final state for unbelievers. In addition to this vision (και, and), John sees a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). The old creation has passed away and all rebellion has ceased (21:1); in this context, he sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

All opposition to God is outside of this city, in the lake of fire (e.g. 21:8): it is not being gradually manifested but is climactically revealed at the end of the age. This does indeed have political implications (81, Loc. 1014), but these are not the implications Wilson sees. It is only after Christians have endured persecution that they are raised to new life and enjoy Christ’s glorious and eternal kingdom (21:7); it is at this time that all the nations are struck down and shattered like clay pots (Rev 19:15; 2:26-27). Far from a gradual manifestation of God’s kingdom, it appears to me that Christ’s Kingdom on earth will be inaugurated in climactic revelation of Christ from Heaven for the sake of His people spread throughout and persecuted in the World.

In these ways, I found the general lack of Biblical interaction detrimental to Wilson’s project and what interaction he offered was not sufficient to convince the unconvinced. The last issue I found in Wilson’s project is the general untenability of transformationist proposals, an untenability that Wilson does not address.

Applying the Mere Christendom Proposal

Empires of Dirt is thorough in explaining the big picture of its proposal: Christ’s reign will be progressively realized in this world and we should explicitly seek this through faithful Christian living towards a “Mere Christendom.” However, other than limited comments on the limitations of state government, Wilson does not work out what exactly an earthly kingdom constructed within Biblical parameters would look like. However, this is where I think proposal for Christendom in any form have the most difficulties; they work well as an implication of eschatology but are incompatible with a careful exegesis of Scripture.

First, to apply Scripture to the a Mere Christendom, we need to have a Biblical theology of the state and understanding of its relation to the Old and New Testaments (unless we want to follow the Two Kingdoms crew in leaving it to natural revelation). Wilson suggests that the Bible teaches three distinct spheres of government that cannot overlap: Family, Church, and State (192-193, loc 2445-2457). However, in my reading of the New Testament, the Church overlaps with and takes priority over the family in several significant ways (e.g. Matt 19:29-30). Furthermore, the relationship between these three is not clear: John Frame has argued that the Church and State are both evolutions of the Family, meaning that these are not so distinct (e.g. Doctrine of the Christian Life 595-602).

Second, it is clear in Wilson’s proposal that he does not want to directly apply the Torah to a nation. However, if theocracy is the goal, it is hard to fathom how it could not be built on God’s governmental revelation par excellence. If God’s earthly kingdom once permitted divorce, given the nature of the fallen world, why would a new earthly kingdom make it illegal (221, Loc 2787)? If God’s first kingdom penalized homosexuality, adultery, and fornication with death (Lev 18:7-23; 20:10-21), how could the new earthly kingdom not do so? The same issue applies for a child cursing their parents (Lev 20:6-9). If God’s first kingdom penalized unbelief with death, how could is second kingdom not do so (Lev 24:10-16; Deut 7:17-26; Deut 13:1-18; 16:21-17:7)? Also, why would the physical symbols of God’s distinctly Holy people (food laws, laws of dress) not apply to a new physically distinct people?

The biggest issue of application I see, however, pertains to the ruler. If Christ is the true King, finally enthroned at the right hand of the Father in fulfillment of God’s promises to David and Abraham, how can any earthly ruler (king, president, prime minister, etc.) take the mantle of God’s earthly kingdom? Furthermore, if we could establish some justification for this position, how would we know whom God has appointed to this role? In the Old Testament, theocracy required explicitly ordained leadership; democratic election was not looked upon favorably (Deut 17:14-20; cf. 1 Samuel 8-15, particularly 8:1-22).

I have been working on several essays on such difficulties that emerge in the context of thinking through the application of the Bible to a “Christian kingdom.” It is because of these paradoxes—along with the general tenor of the New Testament and the book of Revelation—that I find a proposal for a new Christendom untenable. It is a truly massive issue to consider how we as Christians can live faithfully in this World; Wilson has presented some helpful criticisms of Anabaptist and Reformed 2 Kingdoms approaches to the question, but his positive proposal is unclear where clarity is needed most and his argument for it is unpersuasive.  

  1. All references are to the page numbers and locations of the kindle edition []

2 thoughts on “Review of Empires of Dirt

  1. Perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part, but do I detect a leaning toward amillennialism? That is the framework that makes the most sense for me at this point.
    Excellent review. I’ve had a hard time with Wilson in the past with what brief exposure I’ve had, and particularly with his take on eschatology, so you’ve helped clarify some of what seemed so off to me. Well done!
    Gregory Boyd is an intriguing figure who has proven to have a lot more staying power in American Christian culture than I anticipated when I first came across him at PLBC. I actually would quite like to read his book “Across the Spectrum,” though a bit guardedly…

    1. Hey Chris, I am definitely amillenial. I cannot reconcile the postmillenial idea of an earthly Christendom with the New Testament. I am glad you found the review helpful; I am also working on a review of his book Classical Christian Edu situation. I would be very guarded with Boyd, that is one of the few places I would be willing to say I agreed with him.

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