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Rushdoony and the Comprehensive Law of God Today

With the publication of R.J. Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973, the nature of the debate about God’s law changed. The dramatic change is in the number of the laws that might still be applicable today. When it is said that all the laws of the Old Testament are applicable today, what does that mean? Was Dr. Rushdoony advocating a return to 100 percent of the Old Testament laws? Perhaps not, and here’s why.

  • Ian Hodge,
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With the publication of R.J. Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973, the nature of the debate about God’s law changed. The dramatic change is in the number of the laws that might still be applicable today. When it is said that all the laws of the Old Testament are applicable today, what does that mean? Was Dr. Rushdoony advocating a return to 100 percent of the Old Testament laws? Perhaps not, and here’s why.

Rushdoony reacted to the earlier practice of codifying the law into moral, judicial and ceremonial divisions, by rejecting these divisions. The notion was that the moral law was obligatory, but the judicial and ceremonial laws have now “expired” except for the “general equity thereof.”  This was a minimalist approach to the law, and Rushdoony rejected it. In the instance of the judicial laws, it became a matter of definition for Rushdoony. A judicial law was at the same time a moral law and therefore still applicable.

In commenting upon the Westminster Confession of Faith, Rushdoony wrote,

In Chapter XIX, “Of the Law of God,” one of the errors of the Confession appears, in that Adam is placed under “a covenant of works,” the law. However, in paragraph II, it is stated that “This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables.” The law is thus seen as the rule of righteousness, i.e., the way of sanctification. However, in paragraph IV, without any confirmation from Scripture, it is held that the “judicial laws” of the Bible “expired” with the Old Testament. We have previously seen how impossible it is to separate any law of Scripture as the Westminster divines suggested. In what respect is “Thou shalt not steal” valid as moral law, and not valid as civil or judicial law? If we insist on this distinction, we are saying that the state is free to steal, and is beyond law, whereas the individual is under the law. At this point, the Confession is guilty of nonsense.1

In other words, Rushdoony is suggesting it is impossible to define a judicial law that is not, at the same time, a moral law. In which case the categories become rather superficial and meaningless, unless it is referring to the laws that are to be implemented in the civil realm. But these would still be moral laws.

When it comes to the ceremonial laws, Rushdoony has a different objection.

One of the problems with any understanding of these laws governing sacrifices for sin is that they are usually described as ceremonial laws. Although so termed by excellent scholars, it is, I believe, a serious distortion of Scripture … The word ceremony trivializes atonement, and all sacrifices generally.2

It seems that a part of the problem is the attempt to use the word “ceremonial” to describe any laws that are neither moral nor judicial. But it doesn’t work. The law concerning the wearing of tassels (Num. 15:37ff.) hardly fits into the category of “ceremony.” Nor do the laws concerning food qualify as “ceremony.” Just as the requirement for avoiding garments of mixed thread are an imposition on the life-style of the believer, they can hardly be called “ceremonial.” So, too, the prohibition on sowing the field with both ox and ass or planting a field with mixed seed (Deut. 22:9–11). Rushdoony also draws attention to the prohibition on dressing in garments of the opposite sex (Deut. 22:5).3 In other words, there are laws that do not seem to fit under the umbrella of either “judicial” or “ceremonial.” That is the opinion of Dr. Rushdoony, and it seems a reasonable opinion.

So, for Rushdoony, the word “ceremonial” distorts Scripture by trivializing the atonement and all sacrifices. The word “ceremony” connotes the idea that the sacrifices were “merely” ceremonial. But they are much more than that. Now Rushdoony is not arguing for a return to the laws of sacrifice. But he is not content with simply dismissing them. Nor is he saying that the category often referred to as “ceremonial” does not exist. It is the naming of the category to which he is objecting, and what it refers to.

The sacrificial system is indeed ended since our Lord’s vicarious sacrifice, but there is much to these laws of permanent validity. By God’s providential government, these laws of sacrifice are a part of His infallible law-word. If their relevance was only until Christ’s death, then why are they a part of His word? Or, why not skip over them in reading the Bible?4

Unfortunately, Dr. Rushdoony did not answer his own questions for us and explain those components that are of “permanent validity.” It seems he has left this task for a future generation.

Now the question that arises is this one: because Rushdoony rejected the traditional understanding of “judicial” and “ceremonial,” did he therefore reject any categories of the law of God? Not necessarily. In another place, he speaks of the “military laws” of Scripture.5 So he is not devoid of categories; he simply rejects the traditional ones or the naming of them.

Thus it comes as a surprise to find one pastor writing, “I disagree with RJR and find him full of bunk when he attacks the division of the law into Ceremonial, Moral, and Civil. I understand that those divisions need to have elasticity but to want to completely get rid of those categories of thought is just stupid.”

So the question is: Does Dr. Rushdoony want to “completely get rid of” these categories? Simply because no one can properly define “judicial” laws as distinct from “moral” law is not an argument that Rushdoony does not want categories of the law. And simply because Rushdoony has trouble with the meaning of “ceremonial” is hardly an argument that “he wants to completely get rid of these categories.”

What Rushdoony is asking for is definitions—clear definitions. And here the critic of Rushdoony is unhelpful. Later on, the same writer suggested, “Without these kind of distinctions (Bahnsen used slightly different distinctions but still used them) it strikes me as impossible to not be a Judaizer.” Now a Judaizer is usually considered to be one who swaps law for grace. So here it is with a veiled suggestion that Rushdoony might be a closet Judaizer, about as preposterous a suggestion as could be made.

Another writer contributed to the discussion by suggesting the “carnal ordinances” of Hebrews 9:10 were the tipping point at which one would become a Judaizer. When asked to clarify these “carnal ordinances” the writer never responded. But in the context of Hebrews 9, where it is speaking of the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, the “carnal ordinance”’ are those things done by the High Priest in the Most Holy Place, which he entered but once a year.

Now, I don’t know anyone who is brave enough to suggest Dr. Rushdoony was asking for a return of the role of the High Priest and the Most Holy Place, and a reinstitution of the laws that governed the High Priest while he was in that place. In which case, Rushdoony is not asking for a reinstitution ofall the laws of the Old Testament. There are some that, by their very nature, could not be reinstituted anyway, such as the laws that divide the land of Canaan among the twelve tribes of Israel, or some of the laws particular to the tribe of Levi, and in particular, the family of Aaron.

So now we are left with the accusation that those who reject the traditional tri-fold division of the law might become “Judaizers.” This conclusion is, in logic, known as a non sequitur. It’s a non sequitur because the conclusion is not necessary from the premise. It is not the divisions of the laws that make you a Judaizer, nor is it the number of laws you keep that make you a Judaizer. A Judaizer is one who misuses the law by swapping law for grace. Thus even the suggestion that it is the “carnal ordinances” that might make you a Judaizer is also a non sequitur, unless it can be shown that these laws were, in their original intent, a means of salvation. Yet, according to the writer of the Hebrews epistle, “According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb. 9:9). In other words, the Old Testament laws at this point did not save anyone.

Even if someone did call for a reinstitution of 100 percent of the Old Testament laws, this would still not make that person a Judaizer. Such an idea would, of course, have a great problem with the remainder of Hebrews 9 which outlines the difference between the Old Testament High Priest and Christ, the new High Priest. One entered into the Most Holy Place with the blood of bulls and goats, while the other High Priest entered into a spiritual Most Holy Place with His own shed blood.

Why, then, this attack on Rushdoony? I can only guess. Perhaps the critic thinks Rushdoony goes too far with his call back to Old Testament law. But if that is the case, the critic needs to publish his own “Institutes of Biblical Law” laying out which of the Old Testament laws apply today and why. At least Rushdoony did that much. His critics don’t even try.

The comprehensiveness of the law of God thus refers to all the laws that are still applicable today and which should be implemented. It is not a universal call to implement all of the Old Testament laws—just those that are still applicable.

Having written that, I am aware of a hermeneutical problem in discussing the Old Testament/New Testament continuity. The hermeneutic for laying out what is and what is not applicable is not clear, nor is it universally acceptable as being the “correct” hermeneutic. It is a major issue missing from the Reconstructionist literature. Not even Dr. Rushdoony wrote a book on hermeneutics; you have to figure his out from the way he handled the Scriptures. This is not an impossible task, but it does take some diligence.

So there is work left to be done by future Reconstructionists. Our prayer is that God will raise up scholars that will take Christian thinking to the next level and begin to clarify some of the issues which, for Dr. Rushdoony and others, are still to be clarified. Most of all, we need a clear presentation of the comprehensiveness of the law of God that is applicable today.

1. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1973), pp. 550–551.

2. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 3 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1999), p. 5.

3. Institutes, Vol. 1, p. 434.

4. Institutes, Vol. 3, p. 5ff.

5. Institutes, Vol. 1, p. 277.

  • Ian Hodge

Ian Hodge, Ph.D. (1947–2016) was a long-term supporter of Chalcedon and an occasional contributor to Faith for All of Life. He was also a business consultant in Australia, USA, Canada, and New Zealand, and a prominent piano teacher in Australia.

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