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Rushdoony’s Influence on Pastors

There is an exchange of dialogue from G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective series that highlights the Rushdoony approach to faith and life. A doctor says to Father Brown, “I’m a practical man and I don’t bother much about religion and philosophy.” To which Father Brown immediately responds, “You’ll never be a practical man till you do.”

  • Jim West,
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There is an exchange of dialogue from G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective series that highlights the Rushdoony approach to faith and life. A doctor says to Father Brown, “I’m a practical man and I don’t bother much about religion and philosophy.” To which Father Brown immediately responds, “You’ll never be a practical man till you do.”

Rushdoony would amen Father Brown’s repartee! So it is a mistake to think of Rushdoony as an ivory-castle theologian, sequestered from the world and entrenched in a kind of monastic seclusion. On the contrary, and despite the scholarliness of his writings, Rushdoony sought to be practical (he would say relevant) at all times.

The Rushdoony approach, then, was to write books and articles that enshrined relevancy over obtuseness. But to do this he sometimes tackled difficult philosophical enigmas and tried to translate them into understandable English. For example, his book on The One and the Many is an attempt to apply the sometimes erudite apologetics of Dr. Cornelius Van Til to all of life. Rushdoony reduced the age-old One-and-the-Many-problem to one feature—what is ultimate, the one or the many?

Rushdoony made application to two areas. First, he applied the One and the Many to authority. In a body politic, who is ultimate and supreme—the one (the state) or the many (the people)? The answer isn’t an Almighty State that Hegel claimed is “God walking on the earth.” Nor is it the people in the sense that individuals are a law unto themselves in a purely libertarian sense where every man does what is right in his own eyes. The answer is found in the Trinity where God is the ultimate One and the ultimate Many since God is One in Three and Three in One. The only way civil government can be preserved from the tyranny of the one (e.g., Hitler) or the tyranny of the many (e.g., the rabble of the French Revolution) is by implementing the derivative authority of the triune God, who is both One and Many.

Second, Rushdoony also applied the One-and-the-Many template to the search for meaning. Again: Is ultimate meaning to be discovered in the one (e.g., a husband’s pouring out his soul so that he virtually worships his own wife) or in the many (e.g., a man who plays the field or indulges himself in polygamy). The meaning of life (and marriage) is found in fellowshipping with the Trinitarian God who is One God in Three Persons.

What the above means is that the pastor can intelligently address the most scholarly issues of our day in his public ministry. He is able to do this because the Christian faith, being a total religion, gives him a grid by which he can examine all the facts of the universe. In short, the pastor has a worldview that is both clear and comprehensive. Abraham Kuyper’s famous statement, “There is not one inch on this terra firma, where Christ does not say, ‘It is mine,’” is reflected in all of Rushdoony’s work. He would agree with the adage: “Every bush is a burning bush.”

Rushdoony’s worldview is reflected not only in the gargantuan size of his library, which covers all subjects, but in his more mundane interests, too. He wrote reams of Position Papers and shared his many insights about modern society in little tidbits in the Chalcedon Report where he would make comments about clocks, sports, food, etc. His favorite baseball team in his early years was the Detroit Tigers and a favorite artist was Mary Cassatt. For entertainment his interests seemed omnivorous, but perhaps with a preference for the American Western. I once mentioned Betty Boop, and he chimed in immediately with his own opinion about this voluptuous cartoon character! How many people have mentioned books that they may have thought they alone were privy to, only to discover that Rush had read that volume long before. It was John Calvin who said that “none will ever be a good minister of the Word of God unless he is first of all a scholar.” That legacy was passed to Rushdoony, and Rushdoony passed it to others. Calvin’s dictum that everything in life must be seen through “the eyeglasses of Scripture” we see realized in Rushdoony’s voluminous writings, lectures, and sermons.

Rushdoony and Preaching

It may be thought that Rushdoony said nary a word about the work of the pastor and his preaching. Again, this is not an accurate assessment. In his Systematic Theology (Vol. 2), he even lampoons the seminary that compartmentalizes practical theology and systematic theology. Although perhaps not giving full credit to that fact that practical theology is merely the communication of theology, he points to a problem that does or has existed in many theological institutions.

For example, when I attended Westminster Theological in Philadelphia in the late 1960s, there was student upheaval to make all the courses more practical. This upheaval resulted in a petition sent to the faculty. It seemed to some that the lion’s share of the professor’s work was spent not for the thoughtful believer, but for scholars. Rushdoony comments on seminaries: “Almost all evangelical and Reformed scholarly works are written with a non-existent modernist audience in mind; most are thus pathetic in their futility. They seek to ‘prove’ not to declare.”1

Rushdoony’s burden for preaching may be best illustrated by one of his lesser known articles, written in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction many years ago.2 The short article is a classic; not a word is wasted as he speaks with lapidary succinctness. Using as his fictitious text the words “Man, your house is on fire,” he charts out several ways that such a text would be preached in today’s theological climate.

The first approach would be the traditional, orthodox approach. The preacher is serious about the text, but it’s the seriousness of the classroom, not the world and life. The preacher carries his study into the pulpit; he explores the etymology of the words house, fire, and man. The auditor is educated, but not inspired to action. He is not told to do anything.

The second preacher is the modern evangelical. Scholarship is anathema to him. His concern is personal experience. He is a “skyscraper preacher” interested in stories and anecdotes. It is “me-centered” preaching. Experience is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Then there is the neo-orthodox, modernist preacher. He approaches the text with certain false premises. The “fire” is treated seriously, but not literally. He argues that this is “holy history, but not real history.” Fire is good; fire often cleanses. But fear of “fire” is barbarous and superstitious. For us, fire can even be a symbol of hope. “Burn, baby, burn!” Torch the old order and bring on the new. There is hope in destruction. “Man, your house is on fire” is a recipe for worldwide peace.

Then there is the new reformation preacher. He condemns all other preachers. He says that the statement “Man, your house is on fire” is not propositional truth. What we should be concerned about is God’s mighty acts in history, the history of redemption. We must not interpret “Man, your house is on fire” moralistically. This is merely God’s way of telling us to decapitalize ourselves and to help the poor. The call is for social action.

To these approaches Rushdoony argues that the words “Man, your house is on fire” is God’s call for preachers to quench the hellish fire by applicatory preaching. Tell God’s people to put the fire out!

With regard to his own teaching and preaching, his messages were succinct and precise. He never went on too long. He preached with reverent seriousness and gravity, yet without leaving himself open to the same charge that Calvin’s classmates tagged him—“the accusative case.” I like to say that no man pronounced the word evil with more gravity than Rushdoony!

It is also beneficial to mention three other practical achievements of Rushdoony. The first is his concern for the pastoral oversight of God’s people. This is highlighted in one of his recently published books titled The Cure of Souls. It is a book about the spiritual midwifery of the pastor. The book is truly amazing to the person who thinks that Rushdoony’s concerns are limited to ivory-castle questions and answers. When I first saw the book, I even asked myself, “Did Rushdoony really write this?”

The second contribution pertains to Rushdoony’s gift of hospitality. No one enjoyed Christian “nightclubbing” around a hearty meal more than Rushdoony! Hospitality was something he preached and lived.

To these, perhaps a third contribution should be added: I refer to his accessibility to people. It seemed that whenever anyone called Chalcedon, Rushdoony was often the one who picked up the receiver. There was complete and easy accessibility, even when he was in the midst of writing a book.

A Sweeping Kingdom-Ministry

While we can sing the praises of Rushdoony’s worldview, we must also understand that the engine running his worldview is the doctrine of the Kingdom of God (which expression he always capitalized). Although Rushdoony wrote and preached about the church, he rarely if ever capitalized the word church, especially in his later writings. His motive seems three-fold: First, the Kingdom of God is broader than the church. The Kingdom means that Christ’s scepter rules over everything under the sun, including church, family, civil government, education, etc. Second, he is against any apotheosis of the church, which raises the church to the level of deity or infallibility (such as the “infallible” teaching magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church or a pastor acting like a Protestant pope). Also, his writings and lectures particularly accentuate the family as a major player in God’s Kingdom.

Consequently, his teachings on the church sometimes seem abbreviated. In his systematic treatment of the church contained in his systematic theology book, he even admits as much (although not without much explanation), when he writes, “It should be apparent by now that our concern is less with the church as an institution and more with the church as the witness to and the evidence of the life and work of the triune God. The church must also be an institution, but when it is merely an institution, or even primarily an institution, it ceases to be the body of Christ.”3

His ecclesiology has remained a mystery to some while others have seen it as dangerous to the health of the organized church. What we must always bear in mind is that Rushdoony was not against the church as the body of Christ, or even in its various forms of organization; his focus was the Kingdom of God and the comprehensive application of the Christian faith to every sphere. The fault he found with the church was always related to how men have compromised it.

More on the Church

Rushdoony’s doctrine of the Kingdom of God not only provides pastors with a comprehensive worldview, but saves them from a serious Kingdom-bifurcation, that is, that the church is the Kingdom of God with everything exterior being the kingdom of man.

Historically, this bifurcation has fostered two disastrous consequences: first, that the church (according to the view that it alone is the Kingdom of God) rules all (including the state). Second, that the sole interest of the Christian is the church, in effect abandoning the state and everything else to the devil. The Biblical view is that Christ’s Kingdom includes both church and state (and all other institutions). Not only God’s people (the church) but also all the kings and judges of the earth are subjects within God’s Kingdom (Ps. 2:10–12).

Many years ago I asked Rushdoony to speak before the Lex Rex Society in San Jose. I assigned him the topic “Life in a Theocracy.” It turned out that my thinking was much too eschatological. I thought that a fair question was: “When the fullness of God’s (postmillennial) Kingdom arrives, what would it look like?” When he presented his lecture, he argued that we are already in a theocracy, that the theocracy is already present. The only issue is, What is our relationship to the King of the theocracy? Are we willing subjects or rebels? Are we God’s in-laws or His outlaws?

As we have noted, Rushdoony’s doctrine of the church was primarily concerned with the organic character of the church. He once said that while the three marks of the church are a good and necessary beginning, there are really four marks. According to him, that fourth mark is “the fruits of the Spirit.”

His reasoning for this addition lies in the character of regeneration.4 He writes: “The miracle of the resurrection means the miracle of our regeneration.” This means that a regenerated church is necessarily a lively church.  Concerning the traditional marks of the church (the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments, and church discipline), he says that, although necessary, “a correct church is not necessarily a living church.”5 He illustrated this with an allusion to the orthodox inhabitants of a cemetery! Perhaps this is what he meant with his oft-repeated pejorative term churchmen, which he reserved exclusively for ecclesiocrats.

I may have told him about my experience on a golf course with three Southern Baptist ministers, who asked: “What is the difference between a large church and a small church?” The minister then answered his own question: “In a large church the rats are bigger.” An ecclesiorat, then, is a churchman whose passion is for what Rushdoony called “box theology.” Imagine a matchbox inside a huge rotunda. The rotunda represents God’s kingly universe, but the box symbolizes the church. The churchman’s interest and passion is only for what goes on inside the small box. Everything outside the matchbox is considered irrelevant. This is Churchianity instead of Christianity.

On Preaching God’s Law

I have always believed that Rushdoony’s most insightful statement was his explanation of the law of God. Yet (and this may surprise the reader) it was not his teaching about God’s law with regard to society (e.g., how to apply the Mosaic judicials, etc.) but his linking God’s law to Christ’s atonement. He once said in an interview for the Fire on the Mountain newsletter: “The meaning of the cross was that the law of God was violated by man. Man could not make restitution for what he did. Therefore Jesus Christ, very God of very God and very man of very man, had to make atonement. Only so could the law of God be satisfied. This meant that God’s law was very important.”

Adding to the above statement about God’s law, he declared: “Take away the atonement and its centrality and you take away the law of God and you take away the purpose of the law in society. You take away the backbone of society and you have a jellyfish culture. Which is what we have today.” This insight, I believe, without revisiting the whole theonomy controversy, has meant more to my preaching than anything. The cross of Christ becomes quite unintelligible apart from connecting it to God’s law. The atonement becomes quite irrelevant to society, too. What Rushdoony sought to do was to restore the meaning of Christ’s death (Gal. 3:10ff). He even writes: “We have to restore the meaning of the atonement to restore the meaning of law in our society so that we can save our culture from becoming a jellyfish culture in which there are no standards, no backbones, and everything goes.”6

Knowing the meaning of Christ’s death helps the pastor to preach the cross effectively. To repeat Rushdoony’s own words: “The meaning of the cross is the violation of God’s law. This meant that God’s law was very important.” So the minister not only preaches the forgiveness of sin through Christ’s one sacrifice, but also applies the cross to all of society. A truly Christian worldview is quite impossible apart from appreciating the relationship between the atonement and the Ten Commandments.

A Kingdom Conclusion

I conclude by reemphasizing Rushdoony’s love of knowledge and enjoyment of life. As a disciple of the late Cornelius Van Til, his apologetics were presuppositional, comprehensive, and practical. It is accurate to affirm that Rushdoony applied the broad apologetical brushstrokes of Dr. Van Til to all of life. In my book, he was the first Van Tilian to do this comprehensively. This means that because no fact is outside the sphere of Christ’s sovereign lordship, the Christian pastor is animated to pursue a ministry that is well-rounded and comprehensive. He not only puts fires out, but he fires up God’s people to evangelize and to implement the cultural mandate to the glory of God.

1 R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books), 100.

2 Rushdoony, The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. 2, Winter 1975–1976.

3 Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, 777.

4 Ibid., 774.

5 Ibid., 669.

6 Ibid.

  • Jim West

Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!

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