While Arise & Build focuses on building, the trowel isn’t sufficient of itself: the sword comes into play1 to defend the workers (Neh. 4:17). While “they that are far off shall come and build” (Zech. 6:15a), many would rather see the work derailed, some with prominent credentials.2
Dr. Crawford Gribben, writing for The Critic, has penned a criticism of Christian Reconstruction that deserves a response. “Why conservatives shouldn’t migrate to Gab” bears the subheading, “If Gab’s ideal of freedom is defined by Christian Reconstructionists and fascist philosophers, then free speech will be the means, rather than the end, of the reconstruction of social media.”3 Perhaps the subhead has a typo in it, for Dr. Gribben warns that free speech extended to Christian Reconstructionists spells the destruction of social media and freedom of speech.
Dr. Gribben has written for The Critic4 before, and has a book appearing in print on March 23, 2021 entitled Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest.5 The Kindle version was released on February 23, 2021, allowing me to read it entirely before responding. Given that one of his books on John Owen6 was endorsed by no less a scholar than Dr. Joel R. Beeke, this academic courtesy was appropriate.
The Airing of Incendiary Claims
In his most recent post, Dr. Gribben challenges Gab founder Andrew Torba, asking “What exactly does Gab stand for? And is its commitment to free speech unequivocal?”7 He grants that spiritual war “has a history in Christian theology that stretches back to the New Testament”8 but is discomfited by Torba’s juxtaposition of a picture of Michael J. McVicar’s book Christian Reconstruction with a quote from a 1950 essay by non-Christian fascist philosopher Julius Evola. The specter of fascism is self-explanatory, but not as incendiary as the article’s two pull quotes:
In the Christian state Rushdoony idealised, blasphemy would be punished by death
If Christian Reconstruction were to succeed, Evola’s freedom of speech would be violently denied
Dr. Gribben stirs in a David Chilton quote to bemoan the projected application of “Old Testament laws about blasphemy, which by definition9 exclude any defence of freedom of expression.” His earlier post for The Critic doesn’t mention blasphemy, nor does his new book. He has struck out on his own here, relying on a prefab definition of blasphemy and laying his projected dystopia at Rushdoony’s feet.
Research and Scholarship
We’re fairly thin on scholars doing creditable spadework in studying Rushdoony’s work and influence. Dr. Michael McVicar’s efforts were the most comprehensive to date, with his book’s11 strengths outweighing its flaws.12 We published Dr. McVicar’s interim results in a series of articles in Faith for All of Life (2007 to 2011) though he is not a Reconstructionist.
Dr. Gribben also contacted Chalcedon seeking access to research data. The emails to Mark Rushdoony (May-June 2019) reflected his interest in R. J. Rushdoony’s long out-of-print 1966 pamphlet Preparation for the Future. He also sought the date(s) when Rushdoony spoke at Hal Lindsey’s Jesus Christ Light & Power Co., when Rushdoony visited London, and correspondence with Iain Murray.
That does not mean Dr. Gribben’s book is sparsely documented, for he used 7 archives, 158 primary sources, and 205 secondary sources, generating 744 footnotes.
The Five Blind Men and the Elephant
Dr. Gribben’s focus on Moscow, Idaho and its American Redoubt community parallels the image of the five blind men assessing an elephant. Each man studies a different part, yet the elephant isn’t a snake, spear, wall, fan, or rope: the men don’t realize they lack the whole picture. Drilling down to one aspect of a thing has obvious but limited value. The alleged high-water mark of Christian Reconstruction in Idaho13 represents the tip of an iceberg, not the iceberg itself, due to use of the wrong yardstick.14
Dr. Gribben’s choice of works by R. J. Rushdoony is fairly truncated. This creates no problems in education but skews results elsewhere in a way that a wider reading might have mitigated (even beyond Rushdoony15). Ben Carson’s 10% flat tax is attributed to Rushdoony, whereas Rushdoony uses the vastly smaller poll tax16 to fund civil government.17 By shoehorning Rushdoony into an alien statist mold, Dr. Gribben fails to grasp that America’s civil government would be 11,000 times smaller on Rushdoony’s principles.18 Who then is really promoting the state as an engine of coercion?19
Dr. Crawford Gribben versus Dr. Julie J. Ingersoll
In most cases, Dr. Gribben is in accord with Dr. Ingersoll’s Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction. Dr. Ingersoll has attended Christian Reconstruction conferences to conduct her comparative religion research. Chalcedon has attended anti-Reconstruction conferences20 so this is a two-way street.21
Where these two critics diverge, Dr. Ingersoll is often closer to the truth (by observing distinctions her colleague tends to dismiss).
Dr. Ingersoll takes pains to disentangle what R. J. Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists mean by the word democracy, exhorting readers “to pay careful attention to their definitions.”22 “When Reconstructionist writers claim that democracy is unbiblical, they are using a precise (and technically accurate) meaning of ‘democracy’ rather than the one Americans tend to use in public discourse.”23
While Dr. Gribben24 follows Dr. Ingersoll’s fairly judicious path25 in dealing with the Holocaust denial allegation, he declines to adopt “careful attention” on the democracy question: “My reading of Rushdoony is that his opposition to democracy was less nuanced than Ingersoll has suggested.”26 But Dr. Gribben’s “reading of Rushdoony” is overly narrow. He needn’t mine Rushdoony as deeply as Dr. Joseph Boot,27 but a wider net reveals more about the ocean you’re fishing in.
Blasphemy: An Inescapable Concept
When men erect substitute gods (e.g., Schlossberg’s idols of power28), those gods absorb the attributes of the true God. As R. J. Rushdoony says of infallibility, it is “a prerogative of God … appropriated by the state.”29 Predestination then follows:
Because the modern state, in all its variations, is based on Rousseau’s concept of the infallible general will, it is moving steadily towards totalitarianism, seeking total power over man. Marxism openly gives us the dictatorship of the proletariat, plus total planning and control. Total planning is the statist version of predestination.30
Every attribute of God eventually transfers to human institutions. For humanism, man is ultimate. There is a humanistic version of every theological doctrine, including the concept of blasphemy.
When modern man objects to various divine attributes—infallibility, predestination, etc.—he is objecting to the Christian version, not his own humanistic substitutes. When blasphemy is criticized by humanists, it is blasphemy against God that is targeted. But humanism zealously guards its own doctrine of blasphemy by way of language,31 as Orwell noted, but reality czars are on the horizon. Conformity and allegiance are mandated. This mindset drives the ongoing scorched-earth removal of Christian content.32
Reconstructionists—a Nest of Them
Dr. Gribben casts his analytic gaze toward the Pacific Northwest at the survivalist-oriented communities he regards as derived from Dr. Rushdoony’s positions. He admits that “Rushdoony’s arguments have been repurposed and revived” there.33
It’s intriguing to write about rugged souls carving a community out of a wilderness, buoyed by a spirit of “survival and resistance” against the grain of modern society. Rushdoony says little about survivalism, which explains Dr. Gribben’s interest in the out-of-print Preparation for the Future. Digging into Rushdoony’s actual position on blasphemy to avoid creating a straw man is comparatively boring.
“If it bleeds, it leads,” so a town in Idaho with Reconstructionists—a nest of them—is irresistible. Rushdoony’s scholarly works can’t compete against short attention spans.34
Making a Man an Offender for a Word
Isaiah 29:21 lists various oppressions that will ultimately be terminated. The translation of this text becomes important to our purposes here, because some modern scholars deviate from the text as it is normally understood (e.g., Oswalt,35 Motyer,36 and Young37). Here it is in context:
The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. For the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner is consumed, and all that watch for iniquity are cut off: That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought. (Isa. 29:19-21)
George Rawlinson approved of the “authorized rendering, which condemns one form of oppression—the severe punishment of mere words.”38 A.R. Fausset explains the passage this way:
That make a man an offender for a word (Hebrew, be-dabar)—Who arraign a man for a word which he hath spoken, and which they were watching for to make it a plea for accusing him. This accords with v. 20, “that watch for iniquity.” So “the Pharisees took counsel how they might entangle Jesus in His talk.”39
Plumptre concurs with this treatment:
That make a man an offender for a word … Isaiah had been accused, as Jeremiah was afterwards (Jer. 37:13), of being unpatriotic, because he had rebuked the sins of Israel and its rulers … The “snare” was laid for the “righteous man,” precisely because he “reproved in the gate”: i.e., preached in the open air in the places of public concourse, even in the presence of the rulers and judges ...40
Dr. Rev. Moore says this translation “is justly preferred by Ewald, Alexander, and Delitzsch.”41 Alexander concurs:
Ewald, however, takes the Hebrew term in the same sense with the English and many other early versions, which explain the clause to mean accusing or condemning men for a mere error of the tongue or lips.42
Matthew Henry’s exposition of Isaiah 29:21 falls along the same lines:
They took advantage against them for the least slip of the tongue; and, if a thing were ever so little said amiss, it served them to ground an indictment upon. They made a man, though he were a man of God, an offender for a word, a word mischosen or misplaced, when they could not but know that it was well meant, v. 21 … They put the worst construction upon what was said, and made it criminal by strained innuendos.43
They use these tactics against a man so “that they might have something to lay to his charge which might render him odious to the people or obnoxious to the government. So persecuted they the prophets; and it is next to impossible for the most cautious to place their words so warily as to escape such snares.”44 (Do you suppose Rushdoony is similarly being rendered odious to the people?)
Matthew Poole45 confirms this rendering, as does John Calvin:
Such persons, desiring to have unbounded license … did not calmly submit to be restrained. On this account they carefully observed and watched for their words, that they might take them by surprise, or give a false construction. I have no doubt that he reproves wicked men, who complained of the liberty used by the prophets ...46
This objection to the “liberty” used by those speaking in public is mirrored in Franz Delitzsch’s translation, “who lay snares for him that is free-spoken in the gate.”47
Matthew Henry characterizes such indictments in his exposition of the final clause of Isaiah 29:21:
They condemn him … upon no evidence, no colour or pretence whatsoever. They run a man down, and misrepresent him, by all the little arts and tricks they can devise, as they did our Saviour. We must not think it strange if we see the best of men thus treated; the disciple is not greater than his Master.48
Isaiah 29:21 is alive and well in all its particulars: people even now are being condemned for as little as a single word. This, the Bible regards as oppression.
Rushdoony and Blasphemy
Where should Dr. Gribben have looked to discern Dr. Rushdoony’s views on blasphemy? To his Institutes of Biblical Law and Leviticus (published posthumously). A careful scholar will extract the actual position of his subject by going to the source, not by running afoul of the indictments of Isaiah 29:21. As things stand, Rushdoony has been made an offender for a word, blasphemy, but his treatment of it is absent. The chapter on blasphemy in his commentary (expounding Lev. 24:10-16) is particularly illuminating:
The question at stake is authority. Blasphemy is forbidden in Exodus 22:28, “Thou shalt not revile (or, blaspheme) the gods (or, judges), nor curse the ruler of thy people.” There is no penalty stated in Exodus, and perhaps this meant that the penalty was determined by the situation and case. In this instance, the man was held in custody so “that the mind of the LORD might be shewed them” (v. 12). J.R. Porter held that the case was further complicated by the fact that the man was half Egyptian … There was something unusual about this episode, and perhaps the rabbinic report gives us the background …
We are not given any specific data about the nature of the blasphemy, because it is not necessary for us to know them. It was, clearly, a flagrant offense, and one that struck at the authority and majesty of the covenant Lord … In some way, the blasphemer had denied that God had jurisdiction over him, and this may be the reason why Moses consulted God.
The word blasphemy in the Hebrew is naqab, to curse, revile, puncture, or pierce. It means to seek to destroy. It is warfare against God and His covenant law. This tells us something about the man’s offense. This incident is set in the midst of laws; it tells us that, even as the law was being given, this man was expressing his contempt for God and His law … Peake saw the blasphemy as a complete renunciation of any allegiance to or regard for the covenant Lord.49
Aside from pointing out the unusual nature of this case, Rushdoony agrees with John Owen, who points out the violent piercing intrinsic to blasphemy:
The word here used to express his sin … signifies also to pierce, and is twice so rendered, Isa. 36:6, Hab. 3:14. Desperate expressions, piercing the honour and glory of the Most High willingly and willfully, were doubtless his death-deserving crime … A resolved piercing of the name and glory of God, with cursed reproaches, is the crime here sentenced to death.50
In 1939, Dutch scholar Klaas Schilder, commenting on Christ’s condemnation for blasphemy at Matt. 26:65-66, observes that “All human words are measured by the standards of this one Word … no human speech after this last session of the Sanhedrin can declare its independence of the Word which was in the beginning. No longer are there idle words.”51 Schilder thus held that “Blasphemy was held to be a more serious transgression than idolatry; the blasphemer, it was maintained, sinned not only against the commands of God but also directly against God Himself and against His honor.”52
Rushdoony in his Institutes asserts that Lev. 24:10-16 refers to conduct better understood as “an offense which denies the validity of all law and order, of all courts and offices, and … is an act of anarchy and revolution.”53 Of the accused, he wrote:
He denied the entire structure of Israelite society and law, the very principle of order. As a result, the sentence of death was passed for blasphemy. His offense was in effect that he affirmed total revolution, absolute secession from any society which denied him his wishes. No society can long exist which permits such subversion.54
Even Micklem in the liberal Interpreter’s Bible sees the matter as a serious one despite reservations concerning enforcement:
Generally the state is not expected to tolerate the expression of seditious opinions; yet revolution does not necessarily spell disaster for a people, whereas a loss of reverence for the name of God can only lead to the dissolution of society and in the end to death. We should understand blasphemy in these verses of Leviticus to mean no mere casual expression, but a deliberate and determined denial of the rights of God to obedience and loyalty. Blasphemy laws may be a mistake; of the blasphemy itself it is impossible to take too serious a view.55
Lange’s commentary on Lev. 24:10-23 mirrors Micklem and Rushdoony: “A community which suffers the reviling of the principle of their community without reaction, is morally fallen to pieces.”56 George Adam Smith, commenting on Hosea in 1896, proved that “moral decay means political decay.”57
Rushdoony illustrates the positive implications for liberty this law entails:
Where respect for the authority of God and His word is gone, then soon all authority is eroded. Scripture declares blasphemy to be a very serious offense because any society which begins by profaning God and His authority will soon profane all things. The alternative to authority is total terror by the power state. Where there is no authority, there is soon no justice, because men no longer speak the same moral language of law and authority. The respect for God’s authority establishes communication and healthy dissent. The kind of dissent which thrives in an anarchic situation is the dissent of increasing evil, violence, and destruction. Godly dissent is constructive, not destructive, and its goal is justice and holiness.58
The question then is, Whose system maximizes freedom? For humanists to criticize anyone concerning free speech in 2021 is the height of hypocrisy.
Opposition to Christian Cultural Victory
Dr. Gribben expresses antipathy toward the advance of Christian civilization, supposing Christian Reconstructionists to have taken a dangerously wrong turn. But Rushdoony’s position is no novelty. Purging the world of Rushdoony by making him “an offender for a word” will not suffice.
In 1943, Prof. John Murray penned “The Christian World Order” in which “the whole of life will be brought into willing captivity to the obedience of Christ.”59 He argues that even if that isn’t perchance attainable, we must still try to achieve it. “We must be bold to say that the Christian revelation does not allow us to do anything less than to formulate and work towards a Christian world order in the life that we now live.”60 He even regards the Bible as “the only infallible rule of conduct for the civil magistrate in the discharge of his magistracy.”61 Accordingly, “the civil magistrate” must “recognize and obey the authority of God and of his Christ and thus bring all of its functions into accord with the revealed will of God as contained in his Word,” which Murray regards as a “stupendous responsibility.”62
Ultimately, Dr. Gribben appears to traffic in fear, perhaps thereby playing to his perceived base. Christian Reconstructionists serve a God beyond human control, and humanism cannot approve of a God who confounds the strong with the weak, or catches the wise in their own conceits. John Howe said that “an arm of flesh signifieth a great deal, when the power of an Almighty Spirit is reckoned as nothing.” If you only have an arm of flesh63 to use, then that is all you will see.
5. Crawford Gribben, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2021).
6. Crawford Gribben, An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life (Chicago, IL: Crossway, 2020). Dr. Gribben had earlier written John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat in 2017 as part of the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, as well as The Puritan Millennium (2000), Writing the Rapture (2009), and Evangelical Millennialism (2010), among others.
7. Gribben, Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Migrate to Gab.
9. The original reads “which by definitive exclude any defence” which looks to be a typo.
11. Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
13. Verna Hall warned that such covenantal efforts would be premature until Christian character had matured enough to undertake them.
15. E.g., Dr. Gribben criticizes Gordan Runyan’s book Resistance to Tyrants as if it counseled a new and seditious approach to government, but Pastor Runyan was popularizing an 1853 work, namely James M. Willson, The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2009 ).
17. https://chalcedon.edu/magazine/the-head-tax-the-only-god-endorsed-civil-tax, https://chalcedon.edu/magazine/a-critique-of-jordans-norths-view-of-the-head-tax-part-2-of-3, https://chalcedon.edu/magazine/a-critique-of-jordans-and-norths-view-of-the-head-tax-part-3-of-3
18. In contrast, see Gribben, Survival and Resistance, p. xii & 8 on “massive extension of the death penalty.”
19. Restoring full liability renders the regulatory apparatus superfluous, while the poor tithe would eradicate poverty as happened under the Maccabees.
22. Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 67. An analysis of Dr. Ingersoll’s work from within the Christian Reconstruction community is called for, as well as Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.
24. Gribben, Survival and Resistance, chapter 2, note 4 (on Kindle Notes page 164).
25. Ingersoll, op. cit., p. 218. The 2015 edition of Dr. Ingersoll’s book erroneously speaks of “the eighth commandment’s prohibition on bearing false witness,” given that it is the ninth commandment that deals with the matter. We qualify “judicious” given Dr. Ingersoll’s insistence that Reconstructionists want to impose “biblical law, with violence if necessary …” (p. 216).
26. Gribben, Survival and Resistance, chapter 3, note 37 (on Kindle Notes page 172)
27. Joseph Boot, The Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope for Society (Toronto, Canada: Ezra Press, 2016), esp. pp. 664-666.
28. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), esp. pp. 178-191.
29. R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), vol. 1, p. 12.
30. ibid, p. 6.
33. Gribben, Building a New Jerusalem in Idaho.
35. John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 539.
36. J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), p. 242.
37. Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), vol. 2, p. 328. Note footnote 30 where the word is conceded to possibly come from the oppressed rather than his oppressor.
38. H.D.M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950), vol. 10, p. 475.
39. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982 reprint), part one, p. 654.
40. Charles John Ellicott, ed., Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), vol. 4, p. 496.
41. John Philip Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, reprint of 1878 original), p. 323. Moore served as translator and editor for this portion of the commentary.
42. Joseph Addison Alexander, Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978 ), p. 469.
43. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Co., n.d.), vol. 4, p. 163.
44. ibid, p. 164.
45. Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, n.d.), vol. 2, p. 394.
46. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979 reprint), vol. 7, part 2, pp. 334-335.
47. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes: Volume VII, Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975 [1861 in German, 1890 in English]), Section 2, p. 24.
48. Matthew Henry, op. cit., p. 164.
49. R. J. Rushdoony, Leviticus (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2005), pp. 335-337.
50. John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, [1850-53] 1991), vol. 8, p. 166. So also Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 166; Adam Clarke, loc. cit.; Ephraim Radner, Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), p. 261; Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2000), p. 296, n. 290, etc.
51. Klaas Schilder, Christ on Trial (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House,  1979), p. 170.
52. ibid, p. 158.
53. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books,  2020), p. 114.
54. ibid, p. 115.
55. Nathaniel Micklem in The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1953), vol. 2, p. 119.
56. John Philip Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Exodus & Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, reprint of 1878 original), sect. 2, p. 184.
57. George Adam Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, [1900, 1896] 1928), vol. 1, p. 290. He deals with “A People in Decay: 1. Morally” on pp. 271-289 and “A People in Decay: 2. Politically” on pp. 290-315.
58. Rushdoony, Leviticus, pp. 337-338.
59. John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), vol. 1, p. 356.
60. ibid, p. 357.
61. ibid, p. 364.
62. ibid, p. 365.
63. Cf. Jeremiah 17:5.
- 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.