In 2008, Chalcedon published an article I wrote titled “The Problem That Chalcedon Poses” which examined an assessment of R. J. Rushdoony’s thinking by a scholar who was by no means a friend of Christian Reconstruction: Dr. Molly Worthen.1 While her commitments are in stark opposition to Dr. Rushdoony’s, she was far more honest than her fellow critics, consequently reaching important insights missed by those pushing tribal agendas against a revitalized Biblical faith.
Dr. Worthen’s comments provide a useful introduction to some key points we wish to share here, and we cite her precisely because she is immune from the charge of being a Rushdoony sycophant.2 We will enumerate her points first and then explain their significance (while ignoring the undiplomatic language).
When Rushdoony identified an intellectual crisis afoot in American Protestantism, he was right … he also sought to impose upon conservative Christianity an intellectual consistency that it lacked.3
In general, Rushdoony’s disciples lack his intellectual confidence. They beat upon his favorite themes—North avows that there is “no such thing as neutrality” and manages to quote Cornelius Van Til in nearly every book—but without Rushdoony’s philosophical insight.4
Bahnsen is often held up by reconstructionists as the movement’s foremost scholar, and informed readers may wonder why I have given him short shrift here. I believe his reputation is ill deserved … The motivating ideas of Christian reconstructionism … are only superficially present in Bahnsen’s works. Those who argue for Bahnsen’s superiority imply that by snowing critics with proof texts, he somehow brought new respectability to the movement—but the current reputation of reconstructionism proves that he failed at that task. Rushdoony, there is no doubt, was the founder of the movement and the superior mind.5
The power of Rushdoony’s writings lay less in his strict imposition of Mosaic law on modern life than in the fact that he had a blueprint in the first place, and a philosophy of history to support it. Moreover, he spoke to the tough questions that American evangelical Christians faced. His answers were thought-provoking, to say the least. To ignore the moral complexities of the Old Testament is to commit the heresy of Marcion and deprive Christianity of its foundations; to set aside Christianity’s exclusive claims to truth and salvation may be polite, but it is intellectually dishonest.6
What Dr. Worthen is driving at here is that Dr. Rushdoony’s theology possesses a formidable backbone. There is something solid and substantial here, something (as Dr. Worthen notes elsewhere) intended to be world-transforming and designed to bear the weight of the Great Commission on its shoulders.
We want to examine one of the more distinctive, imposing pillars of the full-orbed faith for all of life that Dr. Rushdoony was directing our collective eyes toward. For suitable context, we turn briefly to a recent news article.
On December 16, 2019, the Washington Examiner posted an article by Max Eden about Steven Wilson, the founder and CEO of a New York City charter school chain who was fired by his board for a blog post that, among other things, extolled an education structured to permit students to “experience the satisfaction of their intellect: the heady delight in connecting ideas, the pleasure of imagination, and the reward that follows mental struggle” (emphasis added). In today’s highly charged climate, to be protective of such values against ideologically intolerant litmus tests is regarded as inherently oppressive and racist. Among other tragedies embodied in such humanistic purges is the loss of the heady delight in connecting ideas: students will not organize ideas—this will be done for them so they don’t deviate from approved narratives.
Contrast Wilson’s promotion of the heady delight in connecting ideas with the indictments raised by the late John Taylor Gatto, who was New York State Teacher of the Year:
The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach dis-connections …
Even in the best schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions. Fortunately the children have no words to define the panic and anger they feel at constant violations of natural order and sequence fobbed off on them as quality in education.
Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek …
I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion.
In contrast, Dr. Rushdoony stood squarely upon the truth that “all things cohere in Christ” (Col. 1:17) so that there is not only an underlying unity, there are connections between everything.
Moreover, one can trace the crucial connections that Rushdoony makes throughout his writings by paying attention to the signposts that crisscross the published landscape. We don’t just mean obvious terms like because, or thus, or consequently that flag cause-and-effect relations. We mean one phrase in particular: as a result. When you encounter this term in Rushdoony’s writings or lectures, you are standing on the all-important connection that bridges the elements on either side of the phrase.
“As A Result…”
How often does Rushdoony use the phrase “as a result”? I examined eight major works of his, and counted how often he connected ideas with this piercing phrase. In ascending order of occurrence, we have A Christian Survey of World History Syllabus (31), Sovereignty (47), Salvation and Godly Rule (51), Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume 1 (83), Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume 2: Law and Society (97), An Informed Faith (122), Systematic Theology (134), and Faith and Action (215). That totals 780 occurrences in just eight works. There’d be well over a thousand if we sampled all his writings (and triple that amount if we included synonyms in the list).
What should we notice first and foremost when we encounter the phrase “as a result” in Rushdoony’s books? The phrase tells us that whatever follows those words didn’t just arise in a vacuum. There is an inexorable cause-and-effect connection with what came before. In Scripture we read that “the curse causeless shall not come” (Prov. 26:2). The situations we are in are not without a cause, the ideas dominating our mental horizons are not without a cause, but few are those who can properly trace the causes, and fewer yet are those who can see such causes at work today and who know what effects they will instigate.
Humans have no trouble grasping the concept of mechanical cause-and-effect: the cue ball strikes another billiard ball and the resulting trajectory is easily predicted. But our ability to discern cultural cause-and-effect, moral cause-and-effect, covenantal cause-and-effect,9 social cause-and-effect, logical cause-and-effect, educational cause-and-effect, etc., has been gravely weakened. We don’t readily make these connections. We don’t possess the framework necessary to do so. As Warfield said, we’ve been “long deprived of the strong discipline of the past.”
Our toehold on reality has atrophied until it has grown unfit to solidly anchor our understanding. When Warfield speaks of a matter “reducing to the stringency of a syllogism” (whereby you can draw a logical conclusion possessing absolute certainty) he is using terms—and ideas—essentially lost to our generation. Today’s cutting-edge progressives would deride such terminology as being a tool of social oppression worthy only of scorn. Rushdoony, who never let his enemies set his agenda for him, nonetheless continued to build a coherent edifice while putting his finger on every key connection and faithfully teaching them to God’s people.
A Cascade of Implications
Do not miss the other key point: the phrase as a result is, itself, laden with meaning: it presupposes meaning and relationship and thus embodies an implicit philosophy of history. This brings us full circle to Dr. Worthen’s earlier point (note the phrase that I’ve italicized below):
The power of Rushdoony’s writings lay less in his strict imposition of Mosaic law on modern life than in the fact that he had a blueprint in the first place, and a philosophy of history to support it.
Dr. Worthen understands something that many Christians do not: a blueprint, even if it’s the right blueprint, only gets you so far. Without an adequate infrastructure to support it, you build on sand because extending a project forward through time requires awareness of goals and purpose. Even communists knew enough to have an eschatology (albeit a warped one) upon which to anchor their statist blueprint.10
Without the ability to draw the connections within an unshakable philosophy of history, our works suffer like the seeds cast upon stony ground, lacking “deepness of earth” and so “having no root, they wither away” (Matt. 13:5-6). But the right blueprint plus the right philosophy of history is a blockbuster combination.
This is what makes Rushdoony’s Biblical worldview formidable. “Worldview” doesn’t merely mean possessing a set of disparate Biblical factoids in a jumble inside one’s mind. A worldview includes the ligaments that tie everything together systematically, such as the kind of connections Rushdoony continually marks out with that trenchant phrase, as a result. Rushdoony goes beyond the words of T. S. Eliot (“So this is this and that is that”) to explain how and why this leads to that. This massively-extended network of meaning across multiple disciplines can be accessed by the serious Christian reader whenever he reads Rushdoony. But there’s more.
Steps toward Understanding
Of course, one can always “study” Rushdoony to try to emulate his thinking, but this isn’t actually necessary. When you read him with even moderate care, subliminal changes occur in your thinking because your mind responds to meaning almost by osmosis whenever it is cogently presented. You begin to see the connections between things and events. You start to see more clearly how reality is framed within a Biblical context, and how God’s Hand moves upon His world. Just as giving heed to Scripture can lead to thinking more Biblically, reading someone like Rushdoony can lead to greater depth and understanding in how we see the world and our place in it.
To get to that point, we must walk in His ways, on the straight paths He has set our feet upon. In God’s grace we might then arrive at the blessings announced in Psalm 111:10: “a good understanding have all they that do His commandments.”11 A faith grounded on a foundation of total meaning will inexorably lead to stronger convictions and more courageous action.
Rushdoony excelled in meaningfully tying all reality together within a Biblical philosophy of history, attracting the attention of observers like Dr. Worthen. The playing out of that Biblical framework is exemplified beautifully in Rushdoony’s output every time he uses those three modest words: as a result. We in turn learn key lessons whenever we cross each of his literary bridges, those connections between ideas,12 better grasping how cause leads to effect in God’s creation, and how results flow from thoughts, faith, and action.
We may even realize that Rushdoony’s writings seem to reach across time to speak to our situation precisely because he never ceased tying causes and effects together, edifying future generations with each of his trailblazing volumes. When we see how causation and meaning meet, faith and action in our own lives will soon operate in greater harmony.
2. Worthen was a doctoral candidate at Yale when I originally wrote my article in 2008, but was subsequently awarded her doctorate in American religious history in 2011.
3. Molly Worthen, “The Chalcedon Problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism,” Church History 77:2 (June 2008), p. 435.
4. Ibid., p. 430.
5. Ibid., p. 430, n116.
6. Ibid., pp. 434-435.
8. John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1992), pp. 2-4.
9. A weakness in discerning covenantal cause-and-effect explains why so many generations of Christians, upon looking at the erosion of their society, erroneously gravitated to Matthew 24 as the underlying cause rather than Deuteronomy 28.
10. Francis Nigel Lee, Communist Eschatology (Philadelphia, PA: The Craig Press, 1974).
11. We should not omit the powerful promise of Psalm 119:99: “I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation.” Perhaps David’s point here helps explain how the children of Issachar “understood the signs of the times and what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32).
12. It is worth noting that when the humanist historian of science, James Burke, released his PBS series Connections in 1978 (which primarily traced technological connections), he didn’t provide a particularly robust philosophy of history to unify the series. Burke, an entertaining, well-informed, and engaging guide, narrated the proceedings authoritatively enough to suggest there must be some meaning behind each step in the ladder of progress he documented, but I doubt that there is any world-transforming power in that television series when compared to the kind of connections that Dr. Rushdoony makes throughout his works. Burke’s goals and Rushdoony’s goals have superficial similarities, but it is Rushdoony who better understands “what makes men tick.”
Taken from the January 2020 issue of our bi-monthly Arise & Build printed newsletter. Receive your subscription to this newsletter along with our bi-monthly Chalcedon Report all for just $20/year. Click now to subscribe.
- Martin G. Selbrede
Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.