The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what The Big Box is all about.
What’s the meaning of life? What’s my purpose? What does God want me to do with my life? These seem to be some of the most popular questions in Christianity today. Others have already tried to answer them – most notably Rick Warren in his runaway bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, but also lesser lights such as John Piper (Don’t Waste Your Life). So how does Doug Phillips answer these all-important questions?
Level 1: General purpose
Phillips’ general grid for interpreting life purpose is that every person has three “levels” of purpose, each nested one inside the other like Russian dolls. The first and broadest level of life purpose is “general” life purpose, or the common call to all men to love and obey God. Phillips first sums this up with the answer to the Westminster Catechism’s famous Question One (“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”). But as we should expect, he’s not content to stop there (emphasis mine):
And so the first and the greatest tragedy of all of humanity is the tragedy that God had given a clear life purpose to Adam and Eve. That purpose was unblemished. It was to be fruitful, it was to multiply, and to have dominion over the earth, and to do so in the very presence of God, and as the Westminster Confession very succinctly says, to glorify Him through all of their actions, and to enjoy Him forever. …
A man cannot understand life purpose unless he understands the dominion mandate which God gave in Genesis and then God reinforced after the flood, when he told Noah to be fruitful, to multiply, have dominion over the earth, meaning to take every thought captive, to be a good steward of the world that God has given, to bring the lordship of Jesus Christ to every single facet of life, every single area of life.
As we can see from the above, two key elements of Phillips’ “general purpose” are dominion and the command to be fruitful and multiply. Let’s explore each of these in more detail.
When I first touched on the ideas of Quiverfull and militant fecundity here, I predicted I would end up covering them again later in this series. Today, with Phillips’ central focus on being fruitful and multiplying, I’ve been proven correct. He doesn’t only mention the idea in the above quotes, but several times:
This is what we learn about the man in Psalm 112. He will have descendants, they will be mighty, and brothers and sisters, I want to tell you that you will never know life purpose if you do not have a vision for family and for generations. …
…this is the emphasis that God said at the beginning, it’s the emphasis God says throughout the Scriptures, that the spirit of the body of Christ is to raise up families that will raise up children that will serve the Lord, that will be faithful, that will be fruitful and multiply and have dominion over the earth, and whatever sphere you find yourself in – single, married, you name it – part of your mission must be to see this work itself out. …
Dear friends, we live in a world in which life is denigrated, in which children are denigrated, in which Christians are using all sorts of excuses found nowhere in the Bible for why they don’t want to have children. ‘Oh, I can’t afford children.’ Brother, how do you know what you can afford or can’t afford? The same God who brings life is the God who provides for you. Nowhere in the Bible – I challenge any man – you will search the Scripture in vain to see any correlation between economic status and life. In fact, what we find in the Holy Scripture is that, when men are obedient to the life purpose of being fruitful and multiplying and having dominion over the earth, God provides for them. God takes some of the poorest men and He gives them the true inheritance, which is many children for the glory of God. …
…brothers and sisters, I wanna say this is the goal. This is part of the goal. This is the application of what it means when we say we wanna enjoy God, obey Him, worship Him forever, serve Him, be fruitful, multiply, have dominion over the earth. And anything short of this, my friend, is a wasted life. Anything short of God’s vision for life purpose for dominion, for fruitfulness, for the blessing of God, for seeking God, is a life which has been wasted.
It would be easy to conclude from the above that Phillips thinks being fruitful and multiplying (i.e., having children) is a life purpose for everyone. This would go hand-in-hand with his view that marriage is “normative” for Christians, and he certainly does make some very strong statements – for instance, the last paragraph, where he comes dangerously close to saying that a person who does not have children has wasted their life. He may, however, have left himself a minuscule loophole in the second paragraph, where he implies that single people should work toward seeing God’s vision for “raising up faithful families” be worked out. (This is supported by other statements in the lecture where he says that single people should pray for the advance of this “vision.”) Single people can thus find their life purpose in working to further the “vision” without actually having children of their own. This distinction, however, is a very fine one, and it would be easy for a casual listener to walk away with the idea that anyone who does not have children has wasted their life and is disobeying God.
Loopholes aside, however, is Phillips on solid ground here? Let’s look at the actual context of the command to be fruitful and multiply:
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:27-28
So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand.” Genesis 9:1-2
The first thing we should notice about these passages is that they are close parallels. In both situations, God is speaking to the entire human population of the earth and gives them almost identical commands. The second thing we should notice is that Phillips has conveniently omitted part of God’s command, something a side-by-side comparison will show:
A man cannot understand life purpose unless he understands the dominion mandate which God gave in Genesis and then God reinforced after the flood, when he told Noah to be fruitful, to multiply, have dominion over the earth…
“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”
Since the phrase “fill the earth” appears in both Genesis 1 and Genesis 9, it would be unwise to simply dismiss it as superfluous since God clearly saw fit to repeat it. In fact, it seems to be closely connected to the command to be fruitful and multiply, as it appears immediately following it in both passages and in the second, is actually connected to it. And herein lies the fatal flaw in Phillips’ argument. Both instances of the command to be fruitful and multiply are issued to the only humans on an otherwise empty earth, and are immediately followed by the phrase “fill the earth.” In other words, God is commanding humans to be fruitful and multiply to populate the earth. And since this command has been more than fulfilled (there are currently 6 billion people on this planet and most of the surface is inhabited to some degree), one has to question if mankind is still obligated to multiply at the same rate we did when trying to “fill the earth.”
I’m also concerned about Phillips’ extensive labeling of children as a “reward” and an “inheritance.” Children are described this way in Psalm 127:3, but Phillips seems to carry the idea too far (emphasis mine):
God takes some of the poorest men and He gives them the true inheritance, which is many children for the glory of God.
My concerns here are twofold. First, under the New Covenant a Christian’s “true inheritance” is in Christ. Children are wonderful, and they are a blessing, but they are not ultimate. Paul, for instance, never married, but would anyone seriously claim that he didn’t get a “true inheritance” because he never had children? Which leads directly into my second concern: despite Phillips’ numerous sympathetic words for barren women (and he’s brought up the subject in multiple lectures), the only logical conclusion we can draw from the rest of his statements is that barren women are either not serving God well enough to “earn” an inheritance, or they’re being cursed or punished by having blessings withheld from them. This is hardly comforting, but it is the corner into which Phillips has painted himself. He has no grounds to offer consolation to these women – unless of course he wants to tell them that their true inheritance is in Christ alone. But that would undercut the entire thrust of his previous argument.
A quiet revolution?
In what might be a first for the Big Box series, Phillips has finally provided us with a working definition of the word “dominion”:
A man cannot understand life purpose unless he understands the dominion mandate which God gave in Genesis and then God reinforced after the flood, when he told Noah to be fruitful, to multiply, have dominion over the earth, meaning to take every thought captive, to be a good steward of the world that God has given, to bring the lordship of Jesus Christ to every single facet of life, every single area of life. This is what it means to have dominion. Dominion isn’t taking governments by storm and by force with the power of the sword. Dominion is bringing the lordship of Christ captive to every single area of life such that there are no zones of neutrality, there is nothing that we don’t touch in the name of Jesus Christ to be a good steward, to see things through God’s eyes, and to seek, to carefully tend the wonderful garden and the world that God has given us.
Those readers who have been following this series from the beginning will recognize the phrase “zones of neutrality” as springing directly from Phillips’ Van Tillian theology (explored in depth in my first post). A zone of neutrality, according to Van Til, is “an area of fact on the interpretation of which Christians and non-Christians agree.” (This isn’t limited to moral or spiritual questions either, as Van Til also said, “On the contrary the Christian-theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God.”) So to Phillips, dominion essentially means the Christianization of everything – likely in his specific theological mold, since, as I demonstrated here, he seems to see Reconstructionism and Calvinism as essential parts of a truly “Christian” worldview.
Notice also Phillips’ definition of what dominion is not. His statement – that dominion is not the forcible takeover of the state – is in line with those of other Reconstructionists, who often complain that they are misrepresented in popular media and portrayed as extremist, violent revolutionaries. However, it’s clear from Phillips’ definition of dominion that what he objects to about forcible government takeovers is not the takeover, but the force. He doesn’t want us to overthrow the state with violence; he wants us to slowly infiltrate it and gradually transform society until (his specific brand of) Christianity is the assumed norm.
But what happens at this point? Well, if other Reconstructionists are to be believed, the Mosaic code is instituted as the law of the land – punishments and all. So Reconstructionists have really been only half misrepresented: while most do not want to carry out a violent coup against the government, they do want to eventually institute a society based on the Mosaic law. In other words, whether the coup is sudden and violent, or gradual and bloodless, the end result is the same.
For those of you who are still skeptical, I have spoken online with former parishioners of Reconstructionist congregations and was informed that there were regular discussions of how to practically apply the Mosaic law to modern society. One discussion concerned whether “witches” (probably Wiccans or pagans in modern parlance) should be executed using traditional stoning, or with more “updated” methods such as lethal injection. The option of letting the Wiccan live was not on the table – Exodus 22:18, after all, is very clear. In other words, these folks are, quite literally, deadly serious.
Level 2: Gender-based purpose
Phillips’ next level of life purpose is determined by whether you are a man or a woman:
…at the heart of the whole Bible is hierarchy, structure, authority, and that God has given the authority of the church, He has ordained the state, He has ordained the family, and within the context of the family He has given specific roles to men and to women.
There is little unexpected in this section. Men are called to lead and be the “prophets” of their homes; women are called to be “keepers at home” and “[find their] life in the context of being a helpmeet to [their] husband.” I’ve debunked most of this material previously (see here, here and here), so I won’t repeat myself here except to elaborate on a few things.
First, I’d just like to call attention yet again to how vague Phillips is about the role of singles. How is a woman supposed to “find her life in the context of being a helpmeet” if she has no husband to be a helpmeet to? One could fall back on Phillips’ previous statements that unmarried daughters are supposed to be helpmeets to their fathers (however unbiblical those statements might be), but what if the woman’s father is dead? What if she lives alone? This last condition would probably horrify Phillips, but it’s not impossible that a woman in such a state could believe his teachings and try to implement them in her life. Yet Phillips, as at many other difficult points in his theology, is silent on this issue.
Second, in the next section where Phillips discusses individual purpose, he states that women will only be content if they accept their roles as helpmeets, and men will only be content if they accept their roles as leaders. Unfortunately for Phillips, there are many Christian couples who either practice mutual submission, or a far more liberal version of headship and submission than Phillips preaches, who are perfectly content. There are also many Christian women who submit almost constantly, and yet can never be truly content because they are the victims of physical abuse by their husbands. What would Phillips say to these women? Would he tell them to submit more to their abusive husbands (even though this usually makes abuse worse) until they are “content” with their lot? This kind of ugly situation is par for the course when trying to make reality conform to a fantasy…which is exactly what Phillips is selling here.
Level 3: Individual purpose
Though Phillips’ discussion of individual purpose is spread throughout the lecture, it is possible to draw together his lines of thought on the topic. When this is done, what emerges as central is Phillips’ view on the silence of Scripture (already explored here). To sum up, he does not believe that the Bible is silent on any topic whatsoever. This leads him to claim, for instance, that psychology is a “false religion” and Christians should not use psychological instruments like personality tests to help them find their life purpose.
He also makes a particular claim that I thought was far too vague. This claim is that Christians should seek the will of God using only the Bible (as opposed to emotions, coincidences, etc.). This sounds good on the surface, but a question arises when we dig deeper. If Christians are only to use the Bible when seeking God’s will, then what’s the purpose of prayer? It is, after all, a form of communication with God that is not necessarily directly connected to the Bible. It is commanded in the Bible, but it is not actually the book or the words themselves – and thus Phillips could be interpreted as saying that Christians should not pray when seeking the will of God. Since I doubt this is what he meant, I recommend he elaborate further in the future to avoid any confusion.
So, to sum up – if I knew you were trying to discover your life purpose, would I recommend Doug Phillips to point you in the right direction? Absolutely not. Though I think his grid could be helpful (if the gender-based second level were removed, as it’s far too infected with patriarchal ideas to be useful as is), personally, I think prayer, and an in-depth study of your life, loves, giftings and interests will serve you much better than any of Phillips’ recommendations. So good luck in your quest – at least now you know where not to look.