In November 1969, distinguished Harvard professor George Williams wrote to his old friend Rousas Rushdoony. Though politically and socially liberal, Williams was pro-life and was working on a major historical piece on abortion.1 Noting that he had read Rushdoony’s The Myth of Over-Population, Williams asked for information about Christians before the nineteenth century who had spoken out about abortion. Rushdoony responded with a list of primary sources, which was particularly strong in patristic literature.
Williams and Rushdoony had a long history. They had known each other at Berkeley, while Rushdoony was a student and Williams a professor at a neighboring Unitarian seminary, and Rushdoony considered him an intellectual mentor. Williams went on to spend a half century at Harvard Divinity School, where he taught, served as dean, and was the Hollis Professor of Divinity. It is remarkable that a liberal Harvard professor would seek Rushdoony’s input on his scholarly work.
At the same time, neo-evangelical historians were bitterly hostile to Rushdoony. In the early 1980s while in seminary, I made a passing reference to Rushdoony’s The Foundations of Social Order in a church history paper. The professor erupted with nasty comments: “What does he know about this, anyway?” and “Would you trust a man like that?” Why does one man generate such diverse responses?
Biblical Philosophy of History
Rushdoony’s approach to theology and history was distinctively Christian and unapologetically Biblical and Reformed. His greatest contribution to historiography was in articulating a coherent, positive, and vigorously orthodox Biblical philosophy of history. He applied to historical studies Biblical truths about the sovereignty of God, the essentially religious nature of man, and the divinely ordained structure of the created order.
Rushdoony approached history with certain givens. His approach was theistic, starting with the Creator who made heaven and earth. He emphasized God’s sovereignty, arguing that God ruled all things by His almighty decrees and providence. He emphasized Scripture, confident that God spoke infallibly through His Word. Rushdoony’s approach was ultimately teleological, viewing God as guiding history toward its appointed ends.2
Rushdoony’s unique contribution was to take categories of Christian thought, show how they were unavoidable, and establish them as tools of historical analysis. He always sought to understand the ultimate religious foundation of a cultural system. Infallibility was an inescapable concept, for instance, Rushdoony argued, and every culture held some word as absolute—be it the inerrant Word of God or some fallible word of man. Every society had an absolute standard of law and justice rooted in religious convictions—either derived from Scripture or from some humanistic standard. Predestination was another inescapable concept. Either man would believe in the decrees of God, or would accept the predestining power of natural forces or of the totalitarian state, as man played god over creation.3
Rushdoony’s robust emphasis on predestination did not resonate well with the theologically effete. Some conservative evangelicals, who otherwise agreed with him, were spooked by his view of divine sovereignty. But Rushdoony properly insisted that there could be no area of the universe outside of God’s control.
Christian Paradigm for History
Rushdoony also stressed the significance of Christian theology—particularly Chalcedonian Christology—in understanding culture, governmental structures, and historical development. This was a consistent emphasis, seen in works like The One and the Many, By What Standard? and The Foundations of Social Order.
The doctrine of the Trinity had an incalculable impact on Western society. It resolved the old problem of the one and the many—of unity and diversity. Apart from a Trinitarian understanding, cultures would either move toward monolithic unity and totalitarianism or toward fragmentation and chaos. Only in a Christian society with Trinitarian foundations, Rushdoony argued, could one find a balance between these forces. “Sphere sovereignty,” furthermore, a specifically Christian notion of a sovereignly transcendent God establishing separate spheres of social authority, laid a foundation for proper social order.
The doctrine of Christ as the God-man was especially important for understanding culture. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) affirmed that Christ was fully God and fully man, possessing two natures without confusion or separation. World systems that lacked a Chalcedonian formulation would inevitably divinize the state or some exalted ruler. Only in creedal Christian societies, which understood Christ as the only mediator between God and man, could limited, Biblical governments flourish.
Jesus Christ was the central point of history. For Rushdoony, this was not an abstract item of theological speculation. His family had ancient Christian roots in Armenia, and his grandfather had been martyred by the Turks. Rushdoony’s parents came to America as refugees, and his father was pastor of Armenian Martyrs Presbyterian Church.4 The importance of Jesus Christ, and the potential cost of serving Him, was obvious in the Rushdoony family.
Rushdoony’s emphasis on Christ in history flows directly from Scripture. Psalm 2 says that rulers and peoples conspired against the Lord and His Anointed, determining to break their bonds. To these antinomian rebels, God declares that His Son has been enthroned, and He calls on man to submit. (Acts 4:26–28 says that this happened at Calvary.)
In Acts 17, Paul addresses the philosophers and rulers of Athens. He declares that God is sovereign, controlling the destinies of nations and individuals. God now calls sinful and idolatrous people to repent, Paul proclaims, reminding them that history will be concluded at the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ. While it was not a conventional view of history for the Greeks, Paul faithfully gave a Christ-centered framework for history.
Rushdoony was committed to the system of Biblical and presuppositional apologetics advanced by Cornelius Van Til, and he extended Van Til’s analysis into the sphere of history. He does this thoroughly in By What Standard? as well as in subsequent works. (Rushdoony was a friend of Van Til, and the two corresponded for years.)5
The Nature of the American System opens with an explanation of a presuppositional methodology for history. “Behind the writing of history is a philosophy of history, and behind that philosophy of history are certain pre-theoretical and essentially religious presuppositions. There is no such thing as brute factuality, but rather only interpreted factuality. The historian’s report is always the report of a perspective, a context, a framework.” Since the Incarnation is the central point of history, the Christian historian will not accept the pagan exaltation and “divinization of the church, state, school, or any other institution.” Rushdoony adds that Christian historiography and Christian revisionism are, for the Christian, “moral imperatives.”6
For Rushdoony, historical meaning and purpose had to come from outside of history. Teleology was and must always be meta-historical. Following Van Til, he argues that “meaning always escapes man when he seeks it in the realm of creation rather than God. Because all things are made by God, nothing is understandable in terms of itself but only in terms of God the Creator.”7
Historians are increasingly interested in this presuppositional approach, even if they don’t understand it. It is a way of linking Rushdoony, Schaeffer, and Van Til, and offering an explanation for the intellectual roots of the Christian Right.8 Unlike other historians, Rushdoony is absolutely forthright about his methodology and philosophical commitments.
Critique of Humanism
Rushdoony was at his best explaining the rise and influence of humanism. Man is an essentially religious creature, he explains: “[T]he alpha and omega of man’s being is his creation in the image of God and his inescapably religious nature.” Because of his religious character, man must worship, and “he will either worship God or he will make himself a god.”9 Elsewhere Rushdoony argues that “the faith of the modern age is humanism, a religious belief in the sufficiency of man as his own lord, his own source of law, his own savior.”10 The religion of humanism, furthermore, has become the de facto established religion in American schools and legal courts.11
Humanism will naturally and inevitably develop into statism. As Rushdoony explains it, “Man needs a source of certainty and an agency of control: if he denies this function to God, he will ascribe it to man and to a man-made order.” The growing emphasis on the United Nations reflects the culmination of humanism: “[W]here there is no theology of God, there will be a theology of the state, or a world super-state.”12
Rushdoony’s critique of humanism arises from Romans 1. There, Paul argues that sinful and rebellious man exchanged the knowledge of God for various forms of idolatry. In his folly, autonomous man declared himself wise. God responded by giving men over to sins and degrading passions until they “burned out.” Every culture that does not truly acknowledge God, Rushdoony argues, will inevitably establish a humanistic system, which will proclaim human autonomy, but which will end in degradation and either anarchy or statism.
Years ago, Christ College produced some Rushdoony-inspired promotional T-shirts. The shirts had a picture of the Ten Commandments and the cross of Christ. I liked the inscription beneath the picture. It read: “God’s law or Chaos.”
This Independent Republic, a study of American themes of freedom, is an excellent example of Rushdoony’s conservative approach to history. The book arose from messages he delivered at a 1962 summer conference of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists; it was there that Gary North became a Rushdoony convert.13
Rushdoony’s thesis is clear: the United States had Christian, Augustinian, feudal, and Protestant roots. The American Revolution was conservative in nature, “to preserve American liberties from the usurpation and invasion of Parliament.”14 The revival of American government, Rushdoony believed, would depend upon “the Christian renewal of the citizenry,” the revitalization of “local units of government,” and the strengthening of Christian schools. The Nature of the American System was a complementary work, calling attention to the neglected themes of America’s Christian past—in opposition to “present Gnostic and messianic movements.”15
Rushdoony identified himself as a conservative and was interested in conservative political causes of the 1960s. He enthusiastically supported Barry Goldwater. He was a tireless critic of communism and the United Nations. A Californian, Rushdoony observed firsthand the cultural and moral declension associated with the modernism of the sixties.
Yet Rushdoony was different from other conservative activists. He insisted that true conservatism was Christian. Rushdoony consistently looked beyond symptomatic problems to underlying issues, and the ultimate problem was man’s rebellion against God and His law.
Rushdoony also wanted his works to be practical and useful. He aimed at laymen, not the ivory tower. Professional academics usually write for one another and treat “popular” work with scorn. A scholar once commended Rushdoony for his Institutes of Biblical Law, but said “it was a sad and tragic work because it was aimed at laymen and should have been written to scholars to set up a dialogue.” Rushdoony’s response: “There was no sense of the real world. Scholarly interchange is the goal of scholarship. But that is barren and impotent.” Rushdoony clearly wanted his work to be accessible and useful.
The Institutes of Biblical Law is an excellent example of Rushdoony’s methodology and practical approach. Institutes is a mix of Biblical exegesis, theological reflection, historical illustrations, and cultural commentary. The work explains the Ten Commandments and is an invaluable source for pastors doing Bible studies on the practical implications of the law of God.
The Messianic Character of American Education was a highly influential treatment of American Education. Mrs. Rushdoony wondered why he dedicated so much time to the study—since public education seemed so firmly entrenched. Rushdoony eventually traveled across the country, speaking before advocacy groups, at hearings and in trials, defending the right of Christian education. This real-world contribution of Chalcedon to Christian freedom reflects Rushdoony’s fundamental commitments.16
Rushdoony was particularly pleased with The Myth of Over-Population. It was well received in the Wall Street Journal, and it was instrumental in the conversion of Otto Scott. Rushdoony covers history, economics, theology, and the efforts at population control. Released at the same time as Paul Ehrlich’s sensational and apocalyptic The Population Bomb, the two works are an amazing study of contrasts.
Rushdoony and the Historians
The corpus of Rushdoony’s work is eclectic, touching on history, philosophy, psychology, education, law, government, theology, and the Bible. His historical works cover centuries, involving world history, church history, European and American history. Most historians prefer smaller, more easily defined topics and feel uncomfortable with this range and breadth.17 Rushdoony’s work is theoretical, interpretive, and theologically driven. His self-consciously Christian and presuppositional approach to history has an apologetic purpose—to defend the Christian faith. Most historians would be unable to understand the contours of Rushdoony’s philosophy—even if they agreed with his purpose.
Historians give little attention to Rushdoony because he was not a conventional or professional historian. They emphasize archival work and primary sources, whereas Rushdoony typically relied upon secondary sources. They are also clannish and view outsiders with suspicion.18
I like to think of Rushdoony as a kaleidoscopic historical writer. Those who fiddled with kaleidoscopes as kids will remember the fascination of turning the cylinder and seeing objects and forms tumble into different arrangements and configurations. Rushdoony makes people think outside the box. More appropriately, he forces people to look at the humanistic and statist box from the outside. While not strictly an historian, he offers a coherent Biblical paradigm from which to evaluate history.
Rushdoony has admirers among historians. I was at an academic conference at the University of Virginia in February 2007. One of the discussion topics dealt with the Puritans. “You know,” one professor told me afterward, “the points they made were exactly what Rushdoony argued in The Flight from Humanity.” Rushdoony, he implied, was about thirty years ahead of the profession.19
In The Theme Is Freedom, an excellent work by M. Stanton Evans, there are frequent echoes of Rushdoony themes. Evans notes his dependence on Rushdoony, “who has written an entire library of books about the biblical basis of our freedom” and is in the great Reformed tradition of Cornelius Van Til.
Most recent historical analysis of Rushdoony focuses on his influence on the Christian Right. These authors are not so interested in what Rushdoony taught—as how he influenced evangelical activists. They see four areas of Rushdoony’s influence: his advocacy for Biblical creationism; his influence on American Christian education; his defining and promotion of “theonomy”;20 and his influence on Christian political activism. Rushdoony’s greatest influence was on Francis Schaeffer, the leading apologist of conservative American evangelicalism. Gary North and David Chilton have shown that Schaeffer’s historical and cultural analysis was drawn directly from Rushdoony.21
Rushdoony and Neo-Evangelicalism
Rushdoony once estimated that “nine-tenths of the hostility to me has come from the church.” Believing that conflict over the gospel was unavoidable, he explained: “Whenever you have had a clear-cut statement of the Reformed faith, you have had hostility. When it has been clearly and sharply presented, the faith has always engendered hostilities. When so much of the church is made up of compromisers, who try to keep a foot in both camps, then anyone who unequivocally presents the faith is going to be hated.”22
As early as 1965, Rushdoony warned about the trajectory of Christianity Today and the “new evangelicalism.” As he told Christian historian C. Gregg Singer, Christianity Today “plays down the antithesis, holds that doctrines which divide ‘Christians,’ such as infallibility, the atonement, etc., should not be sharply stated but only generally so, and that ‘love’ must be emphasized ad nauseam. But most of all, there is a determined hostility to Calvinistic thinking, because it represents an uncompromising stand on the Biblical faith.”23 Singer concurred, adding that “[i]t is a peculiar situation to be in—to see people who once felt that you were liberal because you did not hold to dispensationalism drift right by you into the arms of socialism and political radicalism.”24
Even the Westminster Theological Journal showed signs of “humanistic socialism.”25 The treatment of Singer’s A Theological Interpretation of American History illustrated the seminary’s move toward political and theological liberalism. Writing to Westminster professor Edward Young, Rushdoony argued that for Singer’s work “to be turned over carelessly to a bumptious young student who resents its political conservatism and wields a leftist political axe on the book is hardly fair treatment to a tried and true champion of our cause.”26 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster, Rushdoony warned, were becoming “vehicles of the social gospel.” They were leaving the legacy of Van Til and replacing it with rationalism and the autonomy and sovereignty of man. This was a critical moment, Rushdoony continued: “Either the autonomy of man is permitted in our thinking, or it is denied in every realm thereof. Can the church (or seminary) long exist which tolerates liberalism in any form?”27
Rushdoony and the Future
In the summer of 1852, James Henley Thornwell toured Ivy League colleges. A leading Presbyterian theologian, Thornwell was also president of South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), and he wanted to observe the condition of education in the North. He was impressed with the welcome he received at Harvard and was particularly intrigued by a faculty dinner. “They concluded the dinner by singing the seventy-eighth Psalm. This has been an old custom, handed down from the Puritan fathers. It was really an imposing ceremony; and I should have enjoyed it very much, if I had not remembered that they were all Unitarians, witnessing in this service, to their own condemnation.” As he explains to his wife, there was only one drawback to what he had seen at Harvard, “and that is the religion. It makes me sad to see such men, so accomplished, so elegant, at once such finished, gentle men and such admirable scholars, sunk into such a vile faith.”28
Psalm 78 provides insight and direction for the historian. The psalmist declares that God has established a law and a testimony. The Word of God and the history of His mighty deeds were to be declared to the children and to the generations to come. God did not want Israel to forget Him—and to become faithless and rebellious like previous generations.
As an historian, Rushdoony was true to the calling of Psalm 78. He argued for and employed a specifically Biblical and Christ-centered paradigm of historical analysis. Like Thornwell, he cared little about impressing liberals, humanists, statists, or Unitarians. Most historians, unfortunately, even Christian ones, have followed the path of Harvard, exalting human reason, celebrating their own progressiveness, and seeking the world’s acclaim. Professing themselves wise, they have become fools. Rushdoony’s consistent goal was to exalt Christ the King, to show the hand of God in history, and to teach coming generations the truths of Scripture.
The last time I saw Rushdoony, was for a Sunday dinner at my house. Other families were invited, and a number of children were present. Offering a blessing for the meal, Rushdoony also prayed for the little ones: “May these children, and their children’s children, be Christians to the end of time.” The prayer sums up his thinking—and the core of his burden for history—that the Word and testimony of God would faithfully endure for a thousand generations.
1 George Williams, “Religious and Presuppositions in the American Debate on Abortion” Theological Studies 31:1 (1970), 10–75. Williams cites Rushdoony’s work. Rushdoony tells Williams about his forthcoming study of Biblical law—and hints at his main thesis, that “modern Protestantism, both evangelical and liberal, has become radically antinomian.”
2 Rushdoony, By What Standard? 97.
3 Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History, 6, 45ff.
4 Mark Rushdoony, “The Vision of R. J. Rushdoony” October 17, 2005, http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=185. For biographical data, see my “Interview with R. J. Rushdoony” Contra Mundum, 13, Fall 1994, 33–38, http://www.contra-mundum.org/cm/cm13.pdf.
5 I particularly like Van Til’s letter to Rushdoony (May 7, 1962) right after Van Til stumbled into the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth at Princeton. “[Barth] became quite excited and repeated the question, Are you Van Til, three times. Then he added that I had said terrible things about him, namely, that he was the greatest heretic of all time, but Barth also added, ‘I forgive you, I forgive you.’ Just before leaving the meeting ‘Bill Jones,’ an old friend of mine from Princeton days, told me that he had picked up Karl Barth on a street of Princeton and gave him a ride in his car. After Mr. Jones told Barth that he knew me well Barth got excited and said something to this effect. Do you know Van Til? He is a bad man. He called me the greatest heretic of all ages. You tell him that he is a bad boy and won’t go to heaven. I am quoting this from memory, but I am sure that several of the phrases are accurate. I expect to go back again Friday night. That will be the night for discussion. I do not think the ‘bad boy’ is going to ask any questions but it ought to be interesting to see how the discussion is carried on and what Barth will say.” (They say that Karl Barth was a universalist, but that cannot be true. Barth apparently believed that “bad boy” Van Til was not going to heaven, even if everybody else was!)
6 R. J. Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System, v–vii.
7 Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History, 126f.
8 Fritz Detwiler, Standing on the Premises of God: The Christian Right’s Fight to Redefine America’s Public Schools (New York University Press, 1998). Detwiler keeps saying that Rushdoony studied under Van Til at Westminster (15, 111, 131, 239, 242). Also see “Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian Right Is Reimagining U.S. History” Harper’s Magazine, http://www.harpers.org/ThroughAGlassDarkly-12838838.html.
9 Rushdoony, The Politics of Guilt and Pity, 198f.
10 Rushdoony, The One and the Many, 372.
11 Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System, 112.
12 Rushdoony, The Politics of Guilt and Pity, 185–188.
13 Gary North, Baptized Patriarchialism, 23. Schaeffer was also heavily influenced by the book.
14 Rushdoony, This Independent Republic, viii.
15 Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System, vii.
17 There is an old joke about Ph.D.’s: “They study more and more about less and less until, finally, they know everything about nothing at all.”
18 This would not surprise or concern Rushdoony. Universities and mainline academics have a monopoly on what Rushdoony called “pseudo-knowledge.” They guard a liberal orthodoxy and are not interested in alternative viewpoints.
19 Rushdoony, The Flight from Humanity: A Study of the Effect of Neoplatonism on Christianity.
20 For a theological history of “theonomy,” see Marc Clauson, A History of the Idea of God’s Law (Theonomy): Its Origins, Development and Place in Political and Legal Thought (Edwin Mellen Press, 2006).
21 Gary North and David Chilton, “Apologetics and Strategy” Christianity and Civilization: The Tactics of Christian Resistance (1983), 100–140.
23 Rushdoony to Singer (September 28, 1965).
24 Singer to Rushdoony (October 5, 1965).
25 Rushdoony to Singer (September 28, 1965).
26 Rushdoony to Young (May 7, 1965).
27 Rushdoony to Young (June 2, 1965).
28 Quoted in B. B. Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974 ), 361.