First Things Article
The Passing of R. J. Rushdoony
by William Edgar
Copyright (c) 2001 First Things (August/September 2001).
Rousas John Rushdoony died on February 8 of this year, at the age of eighty-four. He was the founder, president, and chairman of the Chalcedon Foundation, which holds conferences and publishes both a journal by the same name and the Chalcedon Report, a monthly magazine with articles on every subject imaginable. All these efforts are meant to advance the view that Christian faith is for all of life. The name of the foundation is taken from the great ecclesiastical council of 451 that produced the formula that Christ was God of very God and man of very Man-an affirmation which for Rushdoony meant that no human power could make claims to divinity. A lifelong enemy of socialism, Rushdoony believed it had usurped the unique authority of Jesus Christ.
I first encountered Rushdoony at L’Abri, a Christian community high in the Swiss Alps. The year was 1964. Francis Schaeffer, the founder and director of L’Abri, had recently come across a little book by Rushdoony called This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History, and he made it the basis for a seminar with the students at L’Abri. We gathered in the living room of Chalet les Mélèzes, where most of the community’s meetings were held. It was before Schaeffer became a popular sage for many evangelical Christians, and so we could study such a text informally, though we always did so with care.
The topics covered in the Rushdoony book were wide-ranging. The chapter that Schaeffer chose for the subject of his seminar focused on the difference between the American and the French Revolutions. Drawing on scholars such as Peter Drucker and James C. Malin, Rushdoony challenged the propriety of calling America’s defensive war against Great Britain a true revolution. According to him it was instead a “conservative counterrevolution,” whose purpose was to preserve American liberties from their usurpation by the British Parliament. It owed nothing to the Enlightenment. By contrast, the French Revolution was the direct result of the Enlightenment, along with the organizational strategies fostered by various secret and esoteric societies.
Though at the time I was too much a novice in history to judge the accuracy of his thesis, I was drawn to the clarity and cogency of Rushdoony’s arguments. Those were heady days at L’Abri, which in the sixties was a seedbed for ideas that captivated our imaginations and sought to link every area of our lives to a Christian worldview. A Christian historiography containing such a powerful critique of the point of view most of us received in school was for me a great stimulation. Rushdoony taught us that the American Constitution, with its eloquent absence of references to Christian faith, was a secular document only in appearance. In fact, it was deliberately fashioned as a minimalist document by men of genius whose primary purpose was to ensure the vitality of local government. Here Rushdoony added a distinctive perspective, one which would become a leitmotif throughout his long career, and one which would have a wide impact on other figures in his circle.
In Rushdoony’s view, the Constitution did not need to include a Christian confession because the states were already a Christian establishment or settlement. The First Amendment prohibited laws respecting the establishment of religion because religion was already established at the local level. There were sabbath rules, religious tests for citizenship, laws regarding heterosexual fidelity, blasphemy laws-all of them strongly connected to biblical law. The First Amendment was intended to protect the states from interference by the federal government.
Central to just about every one of Rushdoony’s writings is the notion that freedom must be preserved at the local level, so that God’s law can be faithfully obeyed by all people, without interference from higher temporal powers. America held a special place in world history for him because it began as a Christian civic structure. And yet, in our time it desperately needed to regain its original vision. More than anything else, America had to “press the crown rights of Jesus Christ in all spheres of life,” as the Chalcedon slogan has it.
“Rush,” as he was known by his friends and colleagues, believed that he was laying the foundations for a reformation. Born in 1917 in New York City to recent Armenian immigrants from Turkey, Rushdoony was educated in California, where he eventually established his residence. He spent over eight years as a missionary to Shoshone and Paiute Native Americans in Nevada. Before serving two churches in Santa Cruz, casting his lot with separatist Presbyterians, he followed the lead of J. Gresham Machen, who left Princeton Theological Seminary in 1929 to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and eventually helped to form the American Presbyterian Church (now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).
Though Rushdoony did not attend Westminster himself, he was strongly influenced by its famous professor of apologetics, Cornelius Van Til. Van Til had argued that there was a fundamental difference in the way unbelievers and believers reasoned because their source of authority was radically different. On this basis he reproached traditional apologetics, represented for example by Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Joseph Butler, for allowing commonly held, neutral standards to become the warrant for the truth of Christian faith rather than the standards revealed by God in the world, in human consciousness, and in Scripture.
Rushdoony focused on the same problematic in his own work, although his approach to it was, if anything, more radical. For Rushdoony, the fundamental gulf that separates truth from error can be bridged only by allowing the light of God to penetrate every aspect of our lives. His opposition to secular premises was total.
Many have credited Rushdoony with being an early inspiration behind the home school movement. He certainly was the strongest possible advocate of religious education, consistently favoring private over public schooling. In The Messianic Character of American Education (1963) Rushdoony decried the American public school system, tracing its ideology back to John Dewey and other secular thinkers who believed in the natural goodness of children and the role that education could play in liberalizing society.
Rushdoony was often called upon as an expert witness to defend the rights of home-school advocates against their detractors. In 1983 the Home School Legal Defense Association was formed under the leadership of people inspired by Rushdoony’s attacks on secular education. By 1990 over fifteen thousand families in all fifty states belonged to the Association, and today home schooling is more popular than ever.
The movement inspired by R. J. Rushdoony is often given the label Theonomy. The term should not be confused with Paul Tillich’s concept of the same name, which was meant to be a corrective to idolatry through an appeal to “autonomous reason.” Rather, Rushdoony’s Theonomy involves the application of the law of God, and the biblical law particularly, to all of life. It also requires that one appeal to the whole law of God-including the civil law of the Old Testament-as a necessary supplement to being saved by grace through faith. Some of Rushdoony’s followers prefer the term “reconstructionist,” because they believe it does a better job of conveying their positive outlook on life. Indeed, their view of the future could be described as postmillennial, since they tend to believe that God’s Kingdom will eventually be established on earth through the faithful preaching of the gospel and the faithful application of God’s law to society. The result will be a Christian civilization and a thousand year reign of Jesus Christ.
Rushdoony’s most extensive and thorough treatment of the law can be found in his Institutes of Biblical Law, a massive, two-volume work that includes an exhaustive study of the Ten Commandments followed by detailed treatments of taxation, government, virtue, oaths, penal sanctions, property, and nearly every domain of jurisprudence. The book opens, tellingly, with a quote from Wycliffe about his translation of the Bible: “This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Also revealing is the fact that Rushdoony’s Institutes-despite the reference to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in its title-reproaches the reformer for refusing to advocate the complete submission of the state to the Mosaic law.
There is no denying that these 1,600 pages show Rushdoony to have been a man of extraordinary brilliance possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of human affairs. It is truly a work of Protestant casuistry. At the same time, these pages tend to confirm the accusations of harshness often brought against Rushdoony. His Institutes conveys a stern message, and one senses in it a certain deficit of grace and forgiveness.
Rushdoony and his followers have always considered themselves to be at war with antinomianism in any form. They are convinced that European and North American Christians have been afflicted by a belief in what can only be called cheap grace. In response to this situation, they have taught that when Jesus said he came “not to abolish the law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17), he meant to ratify the law-to establish it-not to surpass it. The fact remains, however, that Jesus announced he was not here “to abolish the law and the prophets . . . but to fulfill them,” something far more extensive than mere ratification. The Sermon on the Mount, from which this quote is derived, goes on to explicate how the law’s message had been distorted by the scribes and lawyers of Israel who followed it to the letter but missed its deepest meaning. Genuine Christian piety requires that we take a more expansive-a less narrowly political and punitive-view of the law. Only then will the door of heaven be opened, and the Heavenly Father provide graciously all things needful (Matthew 6:32; 7:7-11).
It is difficult to say how much influence R. J. Rushdoony will ultimately have. The brilliant Greg Bahnsen and the fiery Pat Robertson are among his many admirers. Bill Moyers has produced a PBS documentary on Rushdoony that was widely praised. Theonomy has many champions from quite diverse quarters around the world. Although Rushdoony’s particular brand of reconstruction may not much outlast his death, it will continue to appeal to some. For the anti* nomianism of our world is very much in need of being resisted, even if Rushdoony’s own response to it resulted, in the end, in a severe overcorrection.
William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.