New York Times columnist David Brooks makes an insightful observation in a recent editorial:
[F]rom the 1940s to the mid-1990s, American political life was shaped by a series of landmark books: Witness, The Vital Center, Capitalism and Freedom, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Losing Ground, The Closing of the American Mind.
Then in the 1990s, those big books stopped coming. Now instead of books, we have blogs.
The big books stopped coming partly because the distinction between intellectual movements and political parties broke down …
Today, team loyalty has taken over the wonk’s world, so there are invisible boundaries that mark politically useful, and therefore socially acceptable, thought.1
While I would agree that Brooks identifies one reason for the wane and disappearance of big books, which we’ll have occasion to examine further, he doesn’t touch on the biggest reason: a landmark book actually needs to express a big idea. Men and women aren’t inspired by pedestrian utterance or business-as-usual. Their imagination isn’t captured by the warmed-over remains of hackneyed discourse. A ceaseless procession of writers lowering the bar, their gaze fixed on the mundane, advocating for various interchangeable human philosophies, can only inspire partisan zeal in those who have no higher ideal or greater goal to pursue.
John F. Kennedy was at least partially correct when he stated that “ideas have endurance without death.” It would be more accurate to say that a truly big idea will have endurance without death, and the bigger the idea, the more it will anchor and shape the future.
What’s the Big Idea?
It is all too common for theological pundits to point to the major work, the magnum opus, of the late Dr. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, and declare that volume to be his seminal work, the book containing Rushdoony’s “big idea.” Such an approach to the book embodies a common misconception. The reality is far more stirring: every single paragraph in every book Dr. Rushdoony wrote contains the big idea. We’re simply too blind to see it. Familiarity has bred contempt, and confusion has bred unwarranted familiarity.
What is Rushdoony’s big idea?
If it were simply Rushdoony’s idea, an idea originating from a fallible human, it wouldn’t mean much. Those attracted to Chalcedon’s message would be doing nothing more than following a man and his all-too-human teachings. The idea wouldn’t lift our eyes above the horizon of our own contemplation and could hardly provoke us to live for something greater than ourselves. Rushdoony’s idea could only be the kind of world-shaking big idea we envision if he were merely the messenger of Someone else’s Idea, an Idea that calls us to explode our box theologies, an Idea that can be grasped once God grants us “largeness of heart” (1 Kings 4:29).
Not only would the Idea have to be Someone else’s Idea to merit our attention, let alone our suffrage, it would have to be a truly Big Idea. It would have to be so Big that there could be no bigger idea to compete with it. You could see how Big it truly was once a faithful witness, a messenger, had chipped and chiseled away all the accreted dust and muck clogging the clear meaning of the ancient Words that Someone had used to express His Idea.
To be a truly Big Idea, it would have to be bigger than the world itself, and the One expressing it would have to be bigger than the Idea He had expressed. The Biggest Idea would be one capable of conquering a world that initially repudiates the Idea.
In parallel with Paul’s tactic in 1 Corinthians 4:6, “these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to” Rushdoony’s works. I’ve indulged in parabolic language to incite you to cast your mental net further and wider, to provoke your imagination to see what is required to take in this Big Idea. Your mind, your understanding, are being called on to “[e]nlarge the place of thy tent … stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes” (Isa. 54:2). (Note that I’m not peddling the kind of parable currently being marketed in small devotional books printed in large type.)
The other distinctive characteristic of a Big Idea, one that’s Big even on the cosmic scale, is that it’s not new. The Biggest Idea would have to be older than the hills, older than the stones of time. It would be an Idea we already know. Because we’re familiar with it, its Bigness would no longer appear obvious to our contemplation.
Its Bigness would be hidden in plain sight. It would be an Idea that was eventually reduced to an all-but-mindless slogan, robbing it of its potency. It would be an Idea that everybody thought they were already living out, when in fact they weren’t even close to being swept up in the grip of its mighty currents. Bland familiarity can cause the roar of Niagara Falls to make no greater impression on us than a dripping faucet. We then talk as if we’ve braved the actual cataracts of those mighty waters, when we’ve really done nothing more than moisten our socks in a stale downstream backwater.
It’s an Idea that, once fully grasped, would incite not only zeal, but remorse: remorse for having missed the significance of the Idea entirely even though it was not only right under our noses, it was heard from our very lips. A contemporary worship song laments the self-centeredness of institutional worship in these words: “I’m sorry for the thing that I’ve made it.” If we’re to feel remorse for compromising an activity programmed to occupy only forty minutes once a week, what should we feel if confronted by more severe dereliction in regard to a 24-7 obligation laid on our shoulders by our Lord and Savior?
The Idea would be so Big that every other consideration, situation, issue, objection, diversion, distraction, interest, activity, imperative, would be microscopic in impact compared to the Idea. Next to the Bigness of the Idea, they would be “counted as the small dust of the balance” (Isa. 40:15).
What Idea could satisfy all these criteria, being so Big as to storm the heavens with its every implication, yet so familiar as to force us to stifle yawns in response to it?
The Idea is found in the first half of the answer to what we now know as the first question by way of eminence: what is the chief end of man?
The Big Idea is that man’s chief end is to glorify God.
What happened to reduce so Big an Idea to so trite a slogan on our corporate lips?
The Idea Was Distorted
Our biggest problem is that man has shaved away at the Big Idea, his mandate to glorify God, reducing its dimensions, gratuitously lowering the bar, and consequently winking at the gross compromises made in fulfilling the Big Idea. We’ve made it impossible for anyone to get excited about the Big Idea. It is now the Big Mediocrity. Who will turn the world upside down with a Big Mediocrity?
Therefore, let us be plainspoken. Let us tabulate. Let us number the ways we’ve heaped atrophy upon the Big Idea in how we conduct our lives.
We do not glorify God when we default to the humanistic status quo.
We do not glorify God when we substitute human traditions for the laws of God.
We do not glorify God when we educate our children in government schools.
We do not glorify God when our churches misappropriate the tithe of God.
We do not glorify God when we decline to pay the poor tithe.
We do not glorify God when we limit the domain of His rightful influence to the space between our ears, but work to keep all social life secular and humanistic.
We do not glorify God if we limit that to lifting up hands on Sunday mornings.
We do not glorify God by saying “Glory to God” if we decline to keep His commandments.
We do not glorify God when we criticize His ordinances as being submoral or beneath His Authorship.
We do not glorify God when we walk by sight and stagger at His promises.
We do not glorify God when we fear man or what man may do to us.2
We do not glorify God when we put our trust in man.
We do not glorify God when we implicitly or explicitly acknowledge any higher authority than Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords, including the U.S. Constitution or any other human document or pronouncement now accorded “sacred” status.
We do not glorify God unless we’re glorifying God self-consciously. This last point is important: cows and sheep can glorify God unconsciously. As they stand in the pastures and feed under His shadow, they glorify God because they’re doing what they were created to do. Man is not like the beasts of the field. “God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccles. 7:29).
Man doesn’t enjoy parity with the beasts because man starts far behind the starting line due to his rebellion. Man must be proactive in reversing the curse, in being a minister of reconciliation, of making straight the crooked paths, of leveling mountains and raising the valleys. Man in Christ must take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4–5). “[T]hey that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places” (Isa. 58:12). With everything laid waste in so humanistic a wasteland, how can anyone claim to be glorifying God who turns his back on the waste places, and then blithely mouths the words, “Be warmed and comforted”?
Finally, we do not glorify God unless we regard glorifying God as a total concern. If we’re glorifying God only a third of the time (quite impressive for this generation), that means that two-thirds of the time we’re glorifying something other than God and subordinating His glory to the other thing. Rushdoony taught us that Biblical faith is a total concern, and anything less than that doesn’t deserve the name “Biblical faith.”
It is wrong to conclude that since we fail to glorify God in so many ways, we should therefore adopt a counsel of despair, or default to that as an acceptable norm for Christians. We should rather adopt a counsel of repentance, and God in turn shall be the lifter of our heads. When John 4:23–24 teaches us that neither in Jerusalem nor on Mount Gerizim shall God anymore be worshipped, but rather in spirit and truth, this fact did not dematerialize the faith or detach it from the world. The Jews and Samaritans saw the faith as localized, revealing thinking no less provoking to God than the Syrian claim that “[t]he LORD is God of the hills, but he is not God of the valleys” (1 Kings 20:28). Rather, the extent of God’s crown rights are unleashed to cover every square inch of land, every microsecond of time, and every thought in man’s mind.
God affirms that “[t]he silver is mine, and the gold is mine” (Hag. 2:8) and that “all souls are mine” (Ezek. 18:4). We are not our own, and nothing we “own” is ours, but rather all is held in trust by us as stewards.
Herein lies the lasting power of the writings of Rousas John Rushdoony. He restores the Big Idea to its fullness. The Big Idea is implicit, and often explicit, in every paragraph he published. He raises up not his own standard, but God’s standard without compromise, without adjustment, without apology, without missing a beat. He faithfully shows us how to glorify God as redeemed sinners called out of darkness into the light of God’s beloved Son. He has made the lordship of Christ and the Word of God invincibly relevant to every aspect of our waking lives.3
The dreck and shmutz accumulated on the Big Idea has been chiseled away, leaving a bright, gleaming, blinding imperative in its wake. Rushdoony, unlike so many contemporary theologians, has blown the trumpet clearly. The foundation-rattling sound of God’s message as Rushdoony delivers it is not indistinct. This is precisely why Rushdoony’s published works are offensive to so many. By and large, we prefer to glorify God according to the sound of a garbled, indistinct trumpet. That way, we can make up our own tune as we go along. We would rather glory in our supposed autonomy than delight in His commandments, but Rushdoony’s writings make that untenable.
It takes courage to embrace the total claim of God on our lives. Rushdoony invites us to be bold before men but humble before God. By defaulting submissively to the humanistic status quo and our culture’s expectations, we show ourselves as being humble before men, but bold in our faithlessness before God. Rushdoony puts before us the two paths: the wide, easy path to anemic atrophy and the narrow, straitened path to courageous 24-7 faithfulness. It is a dilemma from which no honest reader can escape. We should thank our God that this should be so, that we can still be reached and instructed in our full obligations that we, having itching ears, have allowed our teachers to shove into the spiritual paper shredder with our tacit approval.
Nuts and Bolts
Chalcedon rejoices in the labors of other faithful ministries, all of which have diverse missions, each with a different focus, each equipping the saints in different respects. All such efforts are commendable and warrant our prayerful support.
What distinguishes Chalcedon from its sister ministries is the sheer scope of what Dr. Rushdoony has set in motion. Others have drawn attention to Christ’s claim over every square inch of territory, that God does not abdicate His lordship over anything. We can read stirring exhortations from faithful men like Cornelius Van Til to exactly this effect—and we do need to hear that call.
What has been lacking prior to Rushdoony’s putting pen to paper has been any clear description of the nuts and bolts of putting that mandate into actual real-world effect. What has been called the “vigorous application of the faith” has been lacking. Up until Rushdoony, men of faith had correctly diagnosed the problem and have called on us, in general terms, to rise up and fix it.
Rushdoony has shown us precisely how to go about it.
In so doing, Rushdoony has put legs on the answers to the questions, How do I glorify God in this generation? When and where do I glorify Him? In reality, Rushdoony’s gone no further than agreeing with the answer to the Shorter Catechism’s second question, What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him? Rushdoony wholeheartedly taught that the Word of God in both Testaments provides that rule—but it is not just a rule for Sunday morning, but a rule that arcs across every boundary, every border, every distinction in time, place, authority, sphere, and affiliation, “piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit” (Heb. 4:12). Rushdoony argued that the Word of God was relevant and potent with ultimate authority over every single part of human life.
And then Rushdoony showed how.
The world will never forgive him for doing that.
He had unleashed the Word of God on a gainsaying world and sleeping Christians. Those awakened by the Lord’s message have found strong meat indeed in the powerful, equipping volumes from Rushdoony’s pen.
Scan the published writings of R. J. Rushdoony, the Journals of Christian Reconstruction, the topics of the Easy Chair tapes, four decades of Chalcedon Reports, and Faith for All of Life, and you will lose count of all the spheres, disciplines, subjects, domains, and territories being explicitly subordinated under Christ’s feet. They seem to be as the sands of the sea in number (in reality, there are several thousand different fields and topics addressed throughout that body of work). There is no ministry anywhere that has so fully established the proclamation of the psalmist that “thy commandment is exceeding broad” (Ps. 119:96).
Chalcedon would betray that proclamation by sitting on its laurels. Rushdoony didn’t set that millstone in motion to let it accumulate moss and lose momentum. Chalcedon is faithful to its founder’s vision by being faithful to the Lord’s Word as Rushdoony was faithful in his proclamation of the truth. Woe to us if we do not faithfully proclaim the message of the King—not just a general message full of clichés, but specific nuts and bolts that equip His people to glorify Him by magnifying His Word over us and all we are and all we have.
We believe that nothing short of the Big Idea can ever turn the world upside down once again. The great Messianic Psalm, Psalm 110, informs us that “[t]hy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” God sets that fire in a man’s heart, a spreading flame, whereby we are consumed with zeal for the Lord’s house.
Men and women who hunger and thirst for strong meat, who want to be thoroughly equipped to live the Great Commission, who decry the counsel of pietistic retreat, who weep at the well-named Reduction of Christianity, who recoil at being kept on the spiritual baby bottle in their churches, will seek out the Big Idea. They will prosper in light of the unleashed Word of God, will be liberated from modern Pharisaism, and will render unto God the things that are God’s (and properly recognize what few things are legitimately Caesar’s).
By Faith He Yet Speaks
A half-decade has passed since the death of Rousas John Rushdoony, and by faith he yet speaks. This was a man who redeemed the time, and every paragraph from his pen reflects that consecration of every thing, beginning with every fiber of his own being, to the Lord God.
Apart from the Big Idea being so Big and worthy of our every breath, why else would Christians be motivated to bring all things in subjection to our Lord? The answer is very simple and stands written in Hebrews 2:8: “But now we see not yet all things put under him.” As long as we find this incomplete subjection to be true, the works of Rousas John Rushdoony will continue to speak with force to men and women of faith, and Chalcedon’s continued output will insure the contemporary relevance of the Word of God as we continue to expand His claims over the totality of human experience.
The works of Rushdoony will remain relevant and important for years to come. His influence was (and remains) disproportionately huge, despite the exceedingly modest size of his ministry (an influence still loudly lamented at secularist conferences to this very day). Why so influential, even posthumously? Because Rushdoony embraced the Big Idea and thereby became a trailblazer in consistently applying the Scriptures as virtually no one else has dared to do. The Big Idea is powerful. It is bold. It scares humanists that there is any Idea out there bigger than their own ideas. They can’t compete with it: they can only ignore it or impotently condemn it.4
That reflects the impact of the Big Idea, God’s Idea, voiced by a humble servant of God who conveyed His Message in longhand from a remote ranch in a rustic Central California town.
Oh, about that Big Idea … ask yourself this one question in light of the above.
Am I thinking too small?
1. David Brooks, “Milton Friedman glowed with the smile of reason,” Houston Chronicle, November 21, 2006, B9.
2. This brings us back to columnist Brook’s lament about the disappearance of big books: one precipitating cause of that disappearance has been those team loyalties that create “invisible boundaries that mark politically useful, and therefore socially acceptable, thought.” What are these team loyalties? They could be loyalties to church, to denomination, to non-denomination, to a theological school of thought, to a ministry, to a self-serving violation of God’s law being protected through a code of silence, etc. We need to read Brook’s comment into our religious life and not assume it applies only to secular politics. We have created artificial accountability structures that create these socially acceptable boundaries, transgressing on Scriptural boundaries in the process. Such accountability structures inculcate the fear of man and peer pressure, generally in the context of team loyalty, rather than instilling the fear of God. As Rushdoony put it, we are our brother’s brother, not his keeper. Not surprisingly, the propagation of the traditions of men makes void the law of God. The conscience can only be bound by God and His Word, but modern Christendom routinely abandons God’s Law and binds the people’s conscience with human precepts. Humanism always rushes in to fill the gap left when God’s law is dumped into the garbage bin. That’s when the invisible boundaries, the unstated rules, encroach on Christian freedom under color of ecclesiastical authority. Couching that humanism in SpiritSpeak merely puts lipstick on the pig.
3. In commenting on the second chapter of Daniel, Rushdoony speaks concerning The Terror of Dreams, illustrating that God uses our dreams to deprive us of the arrogant view that we are always in rational control of ourselves. Not only is our creatureliness affirmed, but the very gift of rationality is withdrawn every evening as a continual reminder that man’s greatest conceit is subject to continuous humbling disproof every night—all according to His overruling design. See R. J. Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come (Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA: 1970, 1998), p. 13f.
4. The disingenuous form the condemnation usually takes is easy to recognize: all fundamentalism is bad, and it is the reason people fly jetliners into skyscrapers, or why self-appointed vigilantes will shoot and murder a doctor who performs abortions. The answer is self-evident: all these abuses arise, not from a totalistic approach to Scripture (where the whole counsel of God is understood and applied) but from a piecemeal approach to it. We see this in humanistic attacks on the Bible: critics always quote an “offensive” verse or two in isolation and rail about what that allegedly leads to. But Christianity, as Greg Bahnsen well says, must be defended as a system, and theology, as Dr. Rushdoony makes crystal clear, is a seamless garment. The best protection against the abuses lamented by humanists is Biblical totalism. The man who is guided wholly and authoritatively by the entire Word of God is not some mindless automaton, a ticking time bomb that could go off and kill his fellow citizens without a thought, but a man constrained, a man immune from being controlled by those who manipulate fragments of Scripture to their own ends. Far from abandoning ethics and morality, the fully equipped man of God alone has an expansive, well-anchored morality that exhibits, in exhaustive detail, his loving his neighbor as himself. In short, the only solution to the caricature painted of Christian fundamentalism is Biblical totalism. Christian fundamentalism can go astray when it fails to anchor itself to the whole counsel of God, when it plays the piecemeal game the humanists indulge in. The vigilantes can be criticized for being “consistent” with a verse or two, but their actions show their gross inconsistency with the whole counsel. Critics paper over this difference because humanists know nothing other than a piecemeal approach to anything: thinking in a system is alien to their premises. In their hands, our Lord’s instruction in the Great Commission would be changed to “teaching them to observe a select handful of the things I’ve commanded you,” rather than all things I’ve commanded. Herein lies the modern error: the straw man it erects against the Bible is its own humanistic, fractured approach to the Bible.
Critics deride Rushdoony’s “jot and tittle” approach to Scripture as leading to such a piecemeal approach to God’s Word, but even that criticism misquotes Rushdoony: the mandate is to obey every jot and tittle, not pit them against each other. “[T]he spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32), forbidding the isolation of any portion of the Scriptures from the testimony of the rest. Modern Christendom sets legalism in motion when it picks and chooses between jots and tittles but disdains to teach all of them, because what remains after filtering is no longer subject to scriptural checks and balances (those having been expunged). When the Sadducees attempted to refute the doctrine of the Resurrection, they cited jots and tittles concerning Levirate marriage, yet Jesus said to them, “Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures …?” (Mark 12:24). Unless one embraces the total message of the entire Bible, he “knows not the scriptures” and will blunder into a ditch as readily as the Sadducees had done.
- 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.