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Cornelius Van Til and Rousas John Rushdoony, Part 2: Defenders of the Faith

During the twenty-year period covered in this essay, the friendship and collaboration between Rushdoony and Van Til grew slowly. Their relationship started with Rushdoony's gushing praise for Van Til's philosophical system and, over time, it grew into a mature collaborative partnership in which the two men supported one another's work. In this essay we'll see how the two men began corresponding in the 1940s; we'll follow Rushdoony's career as a popularizer and expositor of Van Til's difficult ideas; and, finally, we'll watch as the two men developed into mutually self-reinforcing thinkers and friends determined to aid each other's careers through collaborative publishing projects.

  • Michael McVicar,
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In the May/June 2011 issue of Faith for All of Life,1 I provided a brief overview of the thought of Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), the Reformed theologian whose ideas directly shaped Rousas John Rushdoony's project of Christian Reconstruction. In this article, I pick up where that previous article left off and offer a history of Rushdoony's relationship to Van Til from the late 1940s to the 1960s. For readers interested in the early career of Rushdoony, this essay (and the next in this series) will provide a background for understanding how and why Van Til's thought resonated so deeply with Rushdoony's religious convictions. It will illustrate not only that Van Til was a pivotal figure in Rushdoony's theological and ministerial development, but it will also demonstrate that Rushdoony played a pivotal role in bringing Van Til's ideas out of seminaries and colleges and into the wider Reformed community in the United States.

During the twenty-year period covered in this essay, the friendship and collaboration between Rushdoony and Van Til grew slowly. Their relationship started with Rushdoony's gushing praise for Van Til's philosophical system and, over time, it grew into a mature collaborative partnership in which the two men supported one another's work. In this essay we'll see how the two men began corresponding in the 1940s; we'll follow Rushdoony's career as a popularizer and expositor of Van Til's difficult ideas; and, finally, we'll watch as the two men developed into mutually self-reinforcing thinkers and friends determined to aid each other's careers through collaborative publishing projects.

The Uttermost Reaches of Hell

In the 1940s and early 1950s R. J. Rushdoony and his wife served as missionaries on the isolated Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Owyhee, Nevada.2 As a theologically conservative Presbyterian minister, Rushdoony served the Paiute and Shoshone Indians on the reservation with what he called a "harsh and ruthless ministry."3 He unflinchingly preached "[a]tonement, justification by faith, the two natures of Christ and His virgin birth, the congenital evil inherent in all civilizations and culture, the despair of man, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant"4 to the reservation in a tireless effort to "wage war in God's name."5 If his message was unsparing, it was because he felt that the environment on the reservation cried out for the most forceful and aggressive gospel message. For Rushdoony, the reservation represented a microcosm of the spiritual problems facing all modern men: he observed the collision of the non-Christian worldview of the Indians with a deteriorating Western civilization that sustained only the barest remnants of its Christian heritage. As he wrote a friend in 1946,

Our decadent Western culture, despite its degeneracy, has the fragments and habits of its Christian heritage clinging to it, but here [on the reservation] there is nothing. The Indian culture is virtually a dead letter, with nothing but its disease surviving, while the Western culture is only a corroding influence. And so I preach salvation amid ruins, and deal with an often sick heart with miserable drunks, with incest, rape, and the uttermost reaches of Hell.6

Worse still to Rushdoony's mind was the challenge posed by the federal government's administration of the reservation. The state regulated all aspects of life on the reservation. As Rushdoony wrote to a friend, the state "is the giver of all things, the source of power, of land, and (having built a reservoir for irrigation here) even of water ... The government hospital delivers the children, and the government army taketh them away ..."7 Between the ascendancy of the state and the collapse of two cultures, Rushdoony believed he was waging a three-front war-he was simultaneously struggling to bring religious meaning to an occupied and militarily defeated culture, while battling a metastasizing federal bureaucracy, and trying to galvanize a defeated and defeatist Christian church. Not surprisingly, this spiritual warfare took a physical and emotional toll on Rushdoony. He was frequently ill, and a deep melancholy pervaded his correspondence during his missionary years. To press on in the fight, Rushdoony needed a more hopeful and helpful theological message.

In part one of this series, I recounted how Rushdoony accidently ran across a copy of Cornelius Van Til's The New Modernism8 during a leave of absence from the Duck Valley reservation. Van Til was a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and far removed from the sort of on-the-ground pastoral work with which Rushdoony was struggling. Nonetheless, when Rushdoony took up Van Til's critique of the post-Kantian dialectical theology of Swiss theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, it immediately convinced the missionary that something could be done to improve the spiritual condition of the Native Americans on the reservation and also to revive a moribund Western Christendom.

At the heart of Van Til's book was his primary insight that the "given presuppositions of any philosophical position predetermined and governed much of its later outworking."9 For Van Til this meant that all orthodox Christians must begin with the presupposition that God is the origin of all creation. With this basic presupposition in place, Van Til built a vast theological system. He insisted that human beings could not think a single thought independently of God. Intellectual autonomy-self-rule of the mind-is a sin because it rejects God's authority; whereas theonomy-God's rule of the mind-is the only source of legitimate knowledge. Christians must begin with the ultimate reality of Jesus Christ and the Trinity as the source of all knowledge. Any other point of apologetic departure implicitly rejects God's sovereignty over all of creation.

From his isolated mission in Nevada, Rushdoony realized that he could apply Van Til's presuppositional system to the problems he faced on the reservation. By presupposing the sovereignty of Jesus Christ over every thought, Rushdoony believed that he could reinvigorate Christianity against the growing threat of the state. A proper Christian education could bring one's thoughts into accord with Scripture and provide a foundation for resisting what he saw as the defeatism of modernist Christianity and the dangers of the paternalistic state. Thus, Rushdoony embraced Van Til's theology in part because of its political implications: Van Til's "antithesis" between Christian and non-Christian forms of knowing justified separatism and secession as a strategy for the political reformation of a rapidly secularizing American republic.

Van Til's presuppositionalism posits a struggle between those who think God's thoughts after Him and those who do not. During his college and missionary years Rushdoony had himself been struggling to recognize the sovereignty of Christ in his own thought. This struggle took the young minister on a tour of the "uttermost reaches of Hell" embodied in the philosophical systems he grappled with in his college years. Before he could stand with Van Til, he first had to realize the power of presuppositions in the philosophy of others.

From Mysticism to the Reformed Faith

About a year after reading New Modernism, Rushdoony began corresponding with Van Til. In one of the earliest surviving letters of this correspondence, Rushdoony opened up about his evolution from a theologically eclectic spiritual seeker to a theologically conservative Calvinist. This early letter is important for two reasons. First, it is perhaps the clearest and simplest statement of how Rushdoony grew into the theologian, preacher, and activist who eventually articulated the project of Christian Reconstruction. Second, the letter is worth lingering on for a moment because it shows how and why Van Til's presuppositional apologetics resonated so deeply with Rushdoony.

Rushdoony wrote Van Til a spiritual autobiography of his progression from mysticism to theological modernism, to medievalism, and finally to the form of Calvinism refined by Van Til and others at Westminster Theological Seminary. In his early college years Rushdoony struggled with mysticism, believing that union with the divine was the answer to the problems of modern faith. Eventually, however, he told Van Til that he rejected mysticism because, "I found that in mysticism one began with the soul and ended with it also: neither the world nor God were ever penetrated."10

With the failure of mysticism to answer his questions about the proper relationship between man and God, Rushdoony turned to modern philosophy. Again, he found it wanting. Similar to mysticism, modern philosophy was prisoner to a damning circularity: it ended where it began. "[T]he given" of modern philosophy, he wrote to Van Til, "is the individual ego, and ultimately the Cartesian world was no larger than the ego. In other words, a man's world included ultimately only as much as his given included at the start."11 Since modern philosophy collapsed into the black hole of the individual ego, Rushdoony then turned to medieval scholasticism because, he believed, it managed to prove the existence of the Trinity. But again, he perceived only failure. Scholasticism may have proved the existence of the Trinity, but it did so "with an impersonal world-pattern as its given and ended with that same structure analyzed into Substance, Structure, and Act, still impersonal and still no more than the given analyzed."12

As Van Til had done in New Modernism, the college-aged Rushdoony looked to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as the primary problem that contemporary Christians must overcome in order to resist the temptations of neo-orthodoxy. For Rushdoony, this struggle coincided with his convalescence in a Bay area hospital:

Turning to the university again, I took a course on Kant, finished it and had most of my paper ... written, when a week in the hospital gave me a chance to think it through carefully, and I realized [Kant's system was a] return to the same dead end as mysticism: the ego became God and the world, lacking them both ... I walked out of the hospital on a Sunday afternoon and left Kant permanently behind, without bothering to type my paper and complete the course. I had come to the conclusion that God had to be the given, because He alone could encompass a complete world and complete man.13

Although Rushdoony instinctively understood the difficulty with Kant, he was not fully able to appreciate it until he read Van Til. "In your writings I am finding," he wrote to Van Til, "to my ever-increasing joy, the implication of [Kant's] position and an answer to its problems."14 From this sentence we can begin to understand why Rushdoony became so invested in Van Til's ideas: for Rushdoony, theological regeneration was part of a wider bodily and spiritual healing process. His bond with Van Tillian thought transcended mere philosophical rigor to become a visceral and deeply personal experience of the truth. Van Til's ideas-especially as embodied in The New Modernism-gave Rushdoony the language to express his own spiritual and intellectual journey. It allowed him to systemize and clarify an understanding of Calvinism that made immediate sense to him, but had previously resisted easy exposition.

By the end of the 1940s Rushdoony made Van Tillian presuppositionalism the foundation of his ministry. The first vague hint of Van Til's influence appeared in an April 1946 letter to Lorna Logan, a Presbyterian Mission official. Rushdoony told Logan, "I have been doing considerable studying since my coming" to the mission and "am increasingly convinced that without a doubt our present day Biblical studies are grounded, not on sound scholarship but on philosophical presuppositions."15 By this Rushdoony meant that modern theologians looked not to the Bible to ground their philosophy, but instead used the philosophical insights of thinkers such as Kant or the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) to frame the way they approached Scripture. Even ostensibly Christian thinkers learned non-Christian presuppositions from an early age. "Our schools," he argued, "in their educational philosophy are completely anti-Christian, despite their claim of religious neutrality."16 The result of this pedagogical failure? "[T]he Church becomes sand," he warned, and "God and Christ are obscured."17

Rushdoony's engagement with Van Til's ideas prompted him to double down on a theologically systematic Calvinism and a rigorously Christian education as the twin pillars necessary for defending Christianity and providing an orthodox alternative to the problems facing modern men. As he wrote to one friend, modern philosophy had fragmented man's nature: "Environment, the subconscious, capitalism, communism, fascism, social mores, the State, and a hundred other things all hold man in sway."18 No modern system of thought allows man to stand as man. But, Rushdoony insisted, the sixteenth-century vision of John Calvin (1509-1564) does: "Only Calvinism is still able to stomach men and yet give glory to God."19 As a consequence of this line of thinking, Rushdoony affirmed his acceptance of Calvinism and his growing theological conservatism. "In thinking," wrote Rushdoony, "I am more conservative than ever. I was always a fundamentalist at heart and in prayer, and now I am one intellectually as well. Since most ‘fundamentalism' today is Arminian and includes a variety of sects and sins, I prefer to call myself a Calvinist in theology, but I do believe literally in the inspiration of scripture in the narrow sense of the word."20

Defending the New Modernism

If Rushdoony had simply allowed Van Til's ideas to remake him into a theologically conservative Calvinist, then Rushdoony might have gone on to a productive career as a preacher or, perhaps, served as an academic theologian at some small, conservative seminary. But Rushdoony wasn't content simply to think as a presuppositionalist. He longed to act according to the program implied in Van Til's system. This meant that he must become an active agent in the defense of the Christian faith. And, if Van Til's presuppositional approach to defending the faith was the most viable available to modern men, then Rushdoony realized that he must enter into the theological arena and take a principled stand on behalf of Van Til's ideas. 

Rushdoony started small, but eventually became a recognized authority on Van Til's thought. He became a sought-after author and speaker who could clarify Van Til's ideas and make them relevant to the lives of the Christians he encountered. With his defense of the faith and his defense of presuppositional apologetics, Rushdoony became Van Til's close friend, a relationship that unfolded in stages as the two men developed a complex and symbiotic relationship, with Van Til's ideas providing the foundation for the project Rushdoony would eventually call "Christian Reconstruction." Simultaneously, Rushdoony taught a generation of conservative Christians how they could apply Van Til's difficult and abstract ideas in their own lives.

Rushdoony's role as Van Til's cheerleader and defender began slowly and built in stages. First, he pitched Van Til's ideas and books to his close circle of friends whom he had befriended during his seminary days at the Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in Berkeley, California. To his friends Orval Clay and Dave Stowe and his former teachers Ernst Kantorowicz and George Huntston Williams, Rushdoony unequivocally endorsed The New Modernism. To Williams, a faculty member at the Harvard Divinity School, Rushdoony proclaimed, "It is one of the best books I have ever read."21 In spite of his limited missionary income, Rushdoony bought multiple copies of Van Til's book and sent them to his friends.

As his conviction in the profundity of Van Til's method grew, Rushdoony developed into something of a watchdog for his theological mentor. Although Rushdoony had been reading and privately suggesting Van Til's texts to friends and associates for nearly two years, by 1947 he had neither contacted Van Til nor had he offered a public statement in defense of Van Til's presuppositional theology. That all changed in the fall of 1947 when Rushdoony wrote a scathing response to the editors of Crisis Christology Quarterly regarding Stuart B. Coles's review of The New Modernism.

A "shocked and dismayed"22 Rushdoony took Coles to task for failing to show "the slightest awareness of the subject-matter" of Van Til's text. After dismissing Coles's review as "a pointless and puerile digression,"23 Rushdoony offered the editors three tightly argued pages outlining Van Til's demolition of the post-Kantian dialectical theology of Barth and Brunner.

With Coles excoriated and Van Til defended, Rushdoony sent a copy of the review along with an introductory note to Van Til at Westminster in Philadelphia. In his brief introduction, Rushdoony lavished praise on Van Til's work. "I would like primarily ... to pay my respects to your truly great work," Rushdoony wrote.24 The missionary regretted the "ignorance of the reviewers of your book" and noted that the theological liberals who assaulted the book hardly understood The New Modernism, and "the conservatives were little better."25

For his part, Van Til was truly grateful for Rushdoony's spirited defense. Van Til "heartily" thanked Rushdoony for his defense against Coles's negative review and went on to note that men like Coles "stick by the words of philosophy ... and insist that just so something is called theology, all is well, even though it came from Kant rather than from Scripture."26 As he noted in a later letter, "There have been a couple other reviews of the sort that appeared in Crisis Christology."27

Indeed, the response to Van Til's text was apparently so nasty that it rose to a level of heated invective more commonly reserved for barroom bravado rather than for academic disputes. For example, during a trip to the eastern U.S. during the late 1940s, Rushdoony personally overheard Joseph Haroutunian (1904-1968), a noted Presbyterian and neo-orthodox theologian who taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School, declare, "The only thing to do with Van Til's book is to use it to wipe the s**t off my a**."28 Years later, Van Til recalled a similar run-in with Karl Barth at a lecture in 1962. When the Swiss theologian-and primary target of Van Til's criticism in The New Modernism-was introduced to Van Til, 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..., but Barth also added, ‘I forgive you, I forgive you.'"29 When a friend of Van Til's gave Barth a ride after the lecture, Barth again became excited and said to the driver: "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."30 From published reviews to anecdotal accounts of off-the-cuff vitriol, Van Til's ideas elicited passionate responses, and, after his 1947 letter to the editors of Crisis Christology, Rushdoony voluntarily enlisted as a combatant on Van Til's side of the dispute-a fact that much "encouraged"31 the embattled theologian.

Given this background it's hardly surprising that Rushdoony's support for Van Til took a personal and professional toll on the young minster. When Rushdoony decided to leave the reservation in 1952 and accept the call to a pastorate at the Trinity Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the mainline body of the Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]) in Santa Cruz, California, Rushdoony hoped to free himself from the crushing physical demands of a frontier mission so that he might devote more of his time to studying and writing. He intended to use his ministry at Trinity to embody his Van Tillian commitments and hoped to do so through a new journalistic publication, The Westminster Herald.32

Although Rushdoony had strong support from some in the 300-member church, many more in the congregation immediately attacked his theological and political conservatism. They were particularly angered when Rushdoony solicited support for his Westminster Herald project and voiced his unwavering support of Van Til's presuppositional apologetic method.33 Others in the congregation remained fiercely loyal to Rushdoony. The result was a schism. Rushdoony's supporters petitioned to separate from Trinity and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At least sixty-six members left Trinity and joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a secessionist church founded by J. Gresham Machen.

If Rushdoony had any misgivings about his loyalty to Van Tillian apologetics after the Trinity controversy, he never showed it publicly or privately. Instead, over the next two decades he became one of Van Til's most lucid and capable defenders, and in the process he helped form Van Til's reception by many academics and preachers in the second half of the twentieth century. Rushdoony decided to take his defense of Van Til straight to the people whom he believed needed to hear it most: academic theologians, philosophers, and students in Reformed seminaries. To this end, Rushdoony began writing his first book, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til.34

By What Standard?

The publication of By What Standard, Rushdoony's introduction to Van Til's philosophical system, was an important turning point for both men. For Rushdoony it marked the appearance of his first book and indicated his willingness to go on the record as a defender and interpreter of Van Til's ideas. On his end, Van Til saw that the book might go a certain length toward clarifying his ideas for a general readership. The theologian believed that Rushdoony's prose was vivid and highly readable. As we'll see, Van Til often struggled with his prose, frequently sacrificing clarity and readability for philosophical precision. This often led to confusion and frustration when lay readers approached his work for the first time. Thus, for both men, By What Standard represented important opportunities, and they spent considerable time collaborating on the text. Rushdoony took great effort to hone a readable synthesis of his mentor's oeuvre while Van Til carefully edited Rushdoony's text to make sure it offered the clearest possible representation of his ideas.

The book grew out of a threefold collaboration between Rushdoony, Van Til, and Charles "Hays" Craig. Hays Craig was the son of Dr. Samuel D. Craig, a conservative Presbyterian and friend of J. Gresham Machen. The elder Craig founded the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company (P&R) in 1930 in Philadelphia and used his press to produce books written from a theologically conservative Reformed perspective. Dr. Craig published The New Modernism and other texts by the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary. Craig's son, Hays, continued to publish Van Til's works through the remainder of the twentieth century. During the 1950s Hays Craig directed much of the work of the press and recruited Rushdoony to write a popular study of the philosophy of Van Til to complement the press's other texts by the theologian. When Rushdoony sent his manuscript to the press, Craig reported, "I have seldom seen my father so pleased with a new title. He is very enthusiastic with the [manuscript]."35 Rushdoony's work with Craig started a collaboration that eventually culminated with P&R publishing the first volume of Rushdoony's mammoth The Institutes of Biblical Law.36

With the publication of By What Standard in 1959, the careers of Rushdoony and Dr. Van Til became inextricably entangled. Van Til immediately recognized that the book would likely help define the public face of his presuppositional method. He hoped that the text might provide a solid rejoinder to his critics in the wider evangelical movement. "No doubt," he wrote to Rushdoony, "the enemies will seek occasion from it for renewed attack. Even so they may be challenged by it to think things through for themselves."37

It is possible that the "enemies" of which Van Til wrote conspired to suppress distribution of the text. The book clubs and bookstores that Craig hoped would expedite the distribution of the text resisted its sale. For example, when the manager of one book club placed its order for By What Standard, he only ordered 100 copies-as compared to his usual orders of 500 to 1000 of new books from Craig's press-"claiming it won't sell." Rushdoony suspected that the reluctance to take the book had less to do with potential sales than it did theology: "This may be a business-man's evaluation, and, as such, he has a right to protect himself from a bad investment ... But I wonder if possibly this is more of the anti-Van Til spirit. Certainly, Craig has felt the book is well written and interesting and has sales possibilities."38 Rushdoony worried this decision would leave the book "killed before birth."39

Despite these distribution worries, the book did find its way into the hands of its intended audience even if it didn't necessarily change perceptions of Van Til's theology. It was generally well-reviewed as a useful introduction to presuppositional thinking. Christianity Today declared, "In view of the obscure nature of the subject matter, Rushdoony is to be congratulated for having produced a highly readable book on a topic of vital importance to intelligent evangelicals."40 Further, in a review of a condensed form of the book published under the title Van Til, Christianity Today called Rushdoony's work "clever" and noted that it outlined Van Til's significance to modern philosophy in "bold strokes."41

If the book didn't necessarily silence Van Til's critics, it did help establish Rushdoony as one of Van Til's ablest expositors. Nowhere was this fact more clear than in the minds of the editors of Christianity Today.42 When Van Til submitted an essay to "the flagship publication of mainstream evangelicalism,"43 the editors came to Rushdoony for help in editing and clarifying the Westminster theologian's difficult submission. Associate editor Dr. J. Marcellus Kik wrote to Rushdoony, "Both Carl Henry and myself have struggled with [Van Til's manuscript] in order to clarify it. Since you have clarified the writing of Van Til previously, I thought the best thing we could do is to send it to you to work over. Please remember 95% of our readers have no knowledge what geschichte is. Anything you can do to clarify will be helpful."44 Such editorial requests and the more-or-less favorable reviews of By What Standard point to the slow but steady inroads Van Til's ideas were making in the wider evangelical movement-and that Rushdoony helped facilitate that wider reception.

Rushdoony came to play an important role not only in popularizing Van Til's ideas, but also in bringing some of Van Til's works to press. In fact, Hays Craig began sending most of Van Til's new manuscripts directly to Rushdoony so that he could clarify Van Til's prose and prod the theologian when he failed to meet deadlines. As early as 1955 Rushdoony began working directly with Van Til as a proofreader and editor on his manuscripts. Rushdoony checked footnotes, confirmed quotations, and provided careful feedback on the organization and style of Van Til's books. By the early 1960s, Van Til's publisher sent new manuscripts directly to Rushdoony for initial reviews. In one typical note, Craig wrote, "Glad you are editing the [manuscript]. It is good to check on Dr. Van Til's style as sometimes he gets himself misunderstood needlessly."45 During this period, Rushdoony worked over manuscripts that eventually became The Case for Calvinism46 and Karl Barth and Evangelicalism.47 In response, Van Til frequently praised Rushdoony's ability to clarify his opaque prose. For instance, when Van Til mused on writing a "popular" book on Karl Barth, he lamented, "Oh, for the pen of a writer such as you enjoy."48 That Van Til allowed Rushdoony such freedom to revise and hone his manuscripts points to how much the senior theologian trusted the younger minister and valued his feedback.

Besides establishing Rushdoony as Van Til's primary contemporary interpreter and editor, By What Standard also succeeded in filling the useful niche of introducing Van Til's complex ideas to students and preachers. Indeed, Van Til made it clear that he intended to use Rushdoony's text in his courses at Westminster. "I have great expectations that my students will be helped by it," he wrote Rushdoony. "First by a more readable statement of my views and second by the fact that one wholly outside my background has taken so deep an interest in it."49 Rushdoony's publisher believed Rushdoony did a "fine job of popularizing and clarifying Van Til. I hope we can effect a wide distribution."50 Craig planned "to push it [the book] among professional philosophers who probably are not too familiar with Van Til and doubtless shy away from Calvinistic and/or Biblical material."51 They also saw the book's potential as an introductory text for college courses and apparently had some success in persuading professors to adopt the text in seminaries such as Westminster.52


During the 1960s, Rushdoony turned some of his attention away from writing and editing to work as a researcher for the William Volker Fund,53 a libertarian-oriented philanthropic organization based in Burlingame, California. It was during this work that Rushdoony engaged in one of his most important efforts to popularize Van Til far beyond the narrow confines of the seminary or pew. While at the fund, he promoted Van Til's ideas in his engagement with the activists and businessmen he encountered in the late 1950s and 1960s. In his interaction with men associated with organizations such as the William Volker Fund, Spiritual Mobilization, and the Foundation for Economic Education, Rushdoony consistently challenged these pioneers of the resurgent American libertarian and conservative movements to be more self-consciously Christian. For Rushdoony, this meant that they should also be presuppositional in their approach to economic and political problems.

Although Rushdoony didn't convert many of his new associates from this period to Van Tillian presuppositionalism, he did manage to push many of them to think about their Christianity, and he challenged them to put their religious convictions at the foundation of their political activism. This interaction between apologetics and political activism eventually came together in the form of the Chalcedon Foundation. In the next essay in this series, I will relate how Rushdoony's relationship with Van Til developed during the pivotal period of the 1960s and '70s when Rushdoony was writing The Institutes of Biblical Law and outlining the project of Christian Reconstruction.


1. Michael J. McVicar, “Cornelius Van Til and Rousas John Rushdoony, Part 1: Every Thought Captive,” Faith for All of Life (May/June 2011): 14–19.

2. For a fuller treatment of Rushdoony’s time as a missionary on the Duck Valley reservation, see Michael J. McVicar, “‘First Owyhee and Then the World:’ The Early Ministry of R. J. Rushdoony,” Faith for All of Life (November/December 2008): 18–22, 31.

3. R. J. Rushdoony to Orval Clay, 15 December 1944. All references to unpublished letters refer to material held in the Rousas John Rushdoony Library, Chalcedon Foundation, Vallecito, California.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. R. J. Rushdoony to Dave Stowe, 14 October 1946. 

7. R. J. Rushdoony to Orval Clay, 24 February 1945. 

8. Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946).

9. Quoted in Wesley A. Roberts, "Cornelius Van Til," in Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development, ed. David F. Wells (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1985), 124.

10. R. J. Rushdoony to Cornelius Van Til, 18 April 1948. 

11. Ibid. 

12. Ibid. 

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid. 

15. R. J. Rushdoony to Lorna Logan, 4 April 1946.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. R. J. Rushdoony to Orval Clay, 5 February 1947.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. R. J. Rushdoony to George Huntston Williams, 23 October 1947. 

22. R. J. Rushdoony to Frederick Bronkema, 23 October 1947. 

23. Ibid. Coles eventually responded to Rushdoony and apparently conceded some of his criticisms. Coles's response to Rushdoony is not available in Rushdoony's personal library, but Rushdoony's June 7, 1948, response to Coles survives. Rushdoony's note suggests Coles apologized for at least part of his review for The New Modernism, but the exact content of Coles's letter is unclear. 

24. R. J. Rushdoony to Cornelius Van Til, 23 October 1947. 

25. Ibid. 

26. Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 4 June 1948. 

27. Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 29 October 1948. 

28. R. J. Rushdoony to George Huntston Williams, 23 October 1947. Rushdoony referenced Haroutunian's coarse words in his October 23, 1947, letter to Van Til, but he spared Van Til the expletives. 

29. Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 7 May 1962. Roger Schultz first called the attention of readers of Faith for All of Life to this exchange in his essay "To a Thousand Generations: Rousas Rushdoony and the Study of History," Faith for All of Life (November/December 2007): 23n.5. 

30. Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 7 May 1962. 

31. Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 29 October 1948. 

32. Rushdoony envisioned the Herald as a journal reporting on issues relevant to Presbyterianism and the Reformed movement more generally. He proposed a journal unapologetically committed to defending Presbyterian economic and political theory and hoped it would appeal to lay readers and church officials alike. For a fuller discussion of the project, see Michael J. McVicar, "‘Basic to Sound Action, Is a Sound Faith': The Westminster Herald," Faith for All of Life (January/February 2011): 13-19.

33. "Two Churches Organized in California," The Presbyterian Guardian, June 15, 1958.

34. Rousas John Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959; repr. Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1995). 

35. Charles H. Craig to R. J. Rushdoony, 28 August 1958. 

36. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law: A Chalcedon Study, Vol. I (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973). 

37. Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 10 January 1959. 

38. R. J. Rushdoony to Gilbert, 30 September 1958. 

39. Ibid. 

40. William Young, "Apologetic," Christianity Today, November 23, 1959, 38. 

41. Robert D. Knudsen, "Current Mood of Our Century: Alienation," Christianity Today, 1961, 53. Knudsen's essay is a lengthy review of a series entitled Modern Thinkers Series published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company in 1960. Knudsen is generally positive about the whole series. Rushdoony's Van Til (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960) republished chapter 3 of By What Standard with a short introduction. The text was one in a series of eight short essays that also included introductions to Nietzsche, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Barth, Bultmann, Niebuhr, and Dewey. 

42. For an in-depth study of Rushdoony's troubled relationship with the editors of Christianity Today, see Michael J. McVicar "Working with Pygmies: R. J. Rushdoony, Christianity Today, and the Making of an American Theologian," Faith for All of Life (July/August 2008): 14-18, 32.

43. William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996), 42. 

44. J. Marcellus Kik to R. J. Rushdoony, 30 January 1959. 

45. Charles H. Craig to R. J. Rushdoony, n.d. 

46. Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism, International Library of Philosophy and Theology (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964).

47. Cornelius Van Til, Karl Barth and Evangelicalism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964). Correspondence between Van Til and Rushdoony frequently references the latter's function as an editor. One of the clearest references to Rushdoony's work on Case for Calvinism is Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 23 July 1962. 

48. Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 25 December 1955. Van Til was likely referring to Rushdoony's work on the pamphlet Karl Barth and Evangelicalism cited above. 

49. Cornelius Van Til to R. J. Rushdoony, 10 January 1959. 

50. Charles H. Craig to R. J. Rushdoony, n.d. 

51. Ibid. 

52. C. H. Craig to R. J. Rushdoony, 2 March 1959. 

53. For a history of Rushdoony's work at the Volker Fund, see Michael J. McVicar, "Aggressive Philanthropy: Progressivism, Conservatism, and the William Volker Charities Fund," Missouri Historical Review 105 (July 2011): 191-212.

  • Michael McVicar

Michael J. McVicar's  dissertation exploring the relationship between the ministry of R. J. Rushdoony and the American conservative movement was later published in book form entitled, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservativsm. He lectures at various universities in Ohio. McVicar is not a Reconstructionist. He can be reached with questions and comments [email protected].

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