At the passing, in February 2001, of Chalcedon’s founder and my father, R. J. Rushdoony, there was debate both within and without the foundation about the course that it should follow.
Though many encouraged our continuing efforts, one or two voices suggested that we should fold altogether lest we be seen as making gain of my father’s name. The latter comments, I believe, came from those who did not hold his name or his message in high regard in the first place. Others, more sincerely, suggested that Chalcedon had to have a new face and move into new areas of activity. “Grow or die” was their warning. I was never thrilled with applying a business model to a ministry, but their warnings were made with a foreboding of disaster unless we did something dramatic.
Perhaps Chalcedon has missed a few opportunities. If so, that remains my legacy. Another, more conservative, strategy emerged at Chalcedon after my father’s death. It was effectively, though unintentionally, acknowledged earlier this year by Martin Selbrede’s article in this venue titled “By Faith He Still Speaks.”1
Selbrede, Chalcedon’s vice president, identified the “big idea” of R. J. Rushdoony (the one that was all-encompassing and that pushed other ideas aside) as his consistent adherence to the assumption that man’s purpose is to glorify God. Selbrede observed the thrust of my father’s message, one that made his voice stand out. “We do not glorify God,” said Selbrede, “unless we’re glorifying God self-consciously.”
That is my father’s modus operandi in a nutshell. My father pushed men to self-consciously pursue God’s glory in every area of life and thought; he assumed faithfulness involved effort, not merely a state of mind or being.
More times than I care to estimate, people would ask my father a question about his hard-nosed stance on one issue or another. “Why do you believe …” or “Why should Christians …” they would start, always “Why?” My father would answer, “Because that is what God’s Word says.” What followed was often a disappointed look or a silence, as though they were hoping for a bit more. I remember once when he commented on the horror with which his observation in The Institutes of Biblical Law I that homosexuality was a moral abomination before God deserving of a death sentence was received. His critics always referred to this as what “Rushdoony advocates” or what “Rushdoony believes.” His comment was, “I was writing about what the Bible said. What did they expect me to write?”
Biblical Law I is my father’s best-known work, and theonomy (meaning simply, “God’s law as taking precedence over man’s”) is a major part of his legacy. That legacy is his largely because of the antinomianism (meaning “against God’s law” or against the idea that it is morally binding) of the twentieth-century church into which he reintroduced such a “radical” concept as God’s law.
Theonomy, however, was not the “big idea” of my father but only a necessary means of pursuing it. Man cannot glorify God while violating His law. The church to which he wrote was (and largely still is) giving lip service to glorifying God while violating God’s laws and teaching men to do so (Matt. 5:19). R. J. Rushdoony overturned some antinomian tables in the house of the Lord. He is still reviled for doing so, mostly by those now guarding those tables from his theonomic heirs.
My father’s big idea and Chalcedon’s core message is more fundamental than Biblical law, however. The reason Biblical law is controversial is that it has met with hostility within the church that professes to glorify God while neglecting obedience to His law. Though he was often accused (by those who apparently neglected the introduction to Biblical Law I) of depreciating justification by grace, what R. J. Rushdoony depreciated was pietism as a substitute for obedience.
“God’s Word says” was, for him, a secure position against those who reasoned that God’s grace must be juxtaposed to His justice and thus defended antinomianism as a higher way. Biblical law was, he clearly delineated, the Christian’s blueprint to sanctification, not just justification, which is an act of God’s grace and entirely His doing. Biblical law as man’s instructions for his sanctification (growth or maturity in grace) was necessary, else the Christian would be seeking that sanctification through lawlessness or rebellion.
Those in the church who repudiate R. J. Rushdoony find it easy to point to his teaching on Biblical law as the issue that offends them because they would agree, at least conceptually, with the need to glorify God. Those who study R. J. Rushdoony from outside the church tend to see him with a little more clarity. More often than not secularists see, in the modern church, a hodgepodge of ideas and movements. In my father they see a scope, a broad application of the faith that others profess. Thus they sometimes mistake this scope, and his rigorous consistency, as the orchestration of the Religious Right (which because of its potential impact on politics and society concerns them as theology does not).
Not all have missed the thrust of my father’s work. Michael J. McVicar is a secular Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University working on a dissertation on my father’s contribution to religious and political thought in America.2 In a recent secular magazine, The Public Eye, he wrote an article in which he identifies what he sees as my father’s core ideas:
As a theologian Rushdoony saw human beings as primarily religious creatures bound to God, not as rational autonomous thinkers … Rushdoony’s primary innovation was his single-minded effort to popularize a pre-Enlightenment, medieval view of a God-centered world. By de-emphasizing humanity’s ability to reason independently of God, Rushdoony attacked the assumptions most of us uncritically accept.3
Because man is created in the image of God, he is, unlike the animals, a moral being. Because of his sin, however, man needs restoration, or salvation. A God-centered world necessitates the grace of God to sinful man so that he might become centered once again in God. Biblical law was not the means of salvation or grace but the path of those who, by God’s grace, were re-centered in Him.
The presuppositional approach of Cornelius Van Til represents the intellectual assumption that man is dependent on God for all thought. It is a God-centered view of how sinful man can know anything. Again, “what God’s Word says” becomes the starting point. Rebellious man is irrational in that he rebels against the God of truth, like a smart-aleck child arguing with an old sage. Again, McVicar sees the heart of Rushdoony’s approach to epistemology (the study of knowledge): “In Rushdoony’s thought, knowledge becomes a matter of disputed sovereignty.”4 Man’s thought is, whether for good or evil, necessarily a moral and religious exercise. It either represents his intellectual rebellion and self-will or it represents his self-conscious submission to the God of truth.
Far more could be said about the core ideas of R. J. Rushdoony and how he developed them. Chalcedon’s fundamental responsibility is to preserve the broad implications of the centrality of God and the lordship of His Christ that my father emphasized. Our message is an all-encompassing one because the claims of our God are total. It is this belief in the prerogatives of a sovereign God and man’s incumbent duty to obey Him that leads to a more comprehensive view of the Christian’s responsibility as well as the assumption by our critics that it is a conspiratorial political agenda.
Many groups try to initiate reforms in one area of thought or life. This is a legitimate goal, but not for Chalcedon. To focus on a specific area could easily cause us to lose the breadth of our message. Even education (for we are an educational organization), a very broad field and a specific aspect of the Great Commission, is not toward an academic end, but is intended to lead to a theology of action (“[t]eaching them to observe all things,” Matt. 28:20).
R. J. Rushdoony was a scholar, a philosopher, and a theologian, but he preferred to refer to himself as a minister of Jesus Christ. His purpose was to persuade Christians that our cultural crisis was a scaled-up manifestation of the sin that plagues every man’s heart and that the alternative to sin is faithful obedience. His theology was not an academic pursuit, but a means of drawing men to a self-conscious commitment to serving God. He spoke of the need to rethink and remake (“reconstruct”) all our lives and institutions in terms of this self-conscious goal. He wanted to inspire Christians to strive for expertise in their respective areas of work and creativity, and this is the message Chalcedon has provided since 1965, and it will, by the grace of God, be its message for years to come.
1. Martin G. Selbrede, “By Faith He Still Speaks” Faith for All of Life, January/February 2007, pp.16ff.
2. McVicar also wrote an article in this publication, “Rushdoony Among Academics: The Secular Relevance of the Thought of R. J. Rushdoony,” May/June 2007.
3. Michael J. McVicar, “The Libertarian Theocrats” The Public Eye, Fall 2007, Vol. 22, No. 3. www.publiceye.org/magazine/v22n3/libertarian.html.