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Rushdoony's Work and Legacy

On Thursday, February 8th, 2001, R. J. Rushdoony, potent Christian scholar and prolific author, president and founder of the Chalcedon Foundation, passed from this life to the next.

  • Brian M. Abshire,
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On Thursday, February 8th, 2001, R. J. Rushdoony, potent Christian scholar and prolific author, president and founder of the Chalcedon Foundation, passed from this life to the next. Unknown by most evangelical Christians outside of the academic elite, "Rush's" influence on shaping the nature of theological discussion regarding social issues may well be seen in later generations as a pivotal point in laying the foundation for a future reformation.

"Rush" was from an ancient Armenian family who fled from the Turkish genocide in the early decades of this century (though born in America, Rushdoony's mother was actually pregnant with him during their escape). As a result of growing up in the Armenian sub-culture, rich in Christian history and tradition, and living in the last days of American Christian culture, Rush had a remarkable perspective from which to see our social problems. One the one hand, Rush never got over his family's love affair with the United States. America, in the early part of this century was less consistently humanistic than today, and evidenced more vestiges of our own Christian past. Christian America had given the persecuted Armenians freedom, and security and prosperity.

Yet at the same time, by end of the 1920's the theological rot of American Christianity and the sociological implications that decay had on the nation could be clearly seen. Liberalism had conquered the mainline churches, Princeton had fallen, Machen was excommunicated, Tennessee was humiliated before the world by enforcing the Genesis account of creation all while broad evangelicalism was sliding into revivalistic irrelevancy by retreating from American life into a pietistic infatuation with the "rapture."

Rushdoony knew that America had been great, because she had been godly, and it was perhaps his most enduring contribution that his life was spent understanding where we went wrong as a culture, and what we had to do to get back on track. Rushdoony believed deeply that the Bible was God's infallible Word, and that it had answers for every area of life. A strict Van Tillian, Rush approached every issue from the perspective of "What does God say about this issue?"

After serving as a missionary to Native Americans, and working in suburban churches, he began his serious scholarly work in the 1950's as he analyzed American culture from a Reformed and presuppositional perspective. Rush authored a number of books that revolutionized the Christian concepts of education and public policy. The Messianic Character of American Education was a devastating critique of the bankruptcy of the philosophical foundations of the public school system. He accurately saw back in the days when the biggest social problem facing teachers was chewing gum and talking in class where those presuppositions would ultimately lead, forty years later. Rush thus is known in some circles as the "father" of the Christian school movement, and much of his time in the seventies and eighties was spend as an expert witness securing the right of Christians to educate their own children, in their own way.

In books such as The Nature of the American System and This Independent Republic Rush demonstrated the Christian principles behind the formation of our country, and again, he predicted accurately the growing tyranny of the civil magistrate as it escaped the bonds of Christian presuppositions. In all these books, Rush was able to succinctly and powerfully delineate the essence of the problems facing us, from a thoroughly Christian world and life-view. As a result, he provided the intellectual foundation for a Christian resurgence in the public areas of life.

But Rushdoony was not just an expert in critiquing the problem. He was an avid postmillennialist, firmly believing that God had called his people to victory, and in 1973, provided the means, through his magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law (self-consciously named after Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion). In the Institutes, Rushdoony provided the first major work of Reformed casuistry in more than three hundred years. The book was so important, that at one point, even Dallas Theological Seminary carried it in their bookstore. Basically, and essentially, the Institutes was a Van Tilian demonstration of the antithesis between the Bible and modern humanistic assumptions; assumptions which far too many Christian scholars had unwittingly accepted. It also demanded that Christians work to rebuild every area of life according to God's Word. But Rushdoony was never a revolutionary nor did he depend upon politics, as his critics so often erroneously charged. Rush explicitly taught that culture would be changed from the ground up, as Christian men first learned to be self-governed in their own lives, their families, their callings and in their churches. This kind of revitalized Christianity would then spread to affect every area of life, art, science, culture and politics.

Rushdoony's analysis was not of course without controversy. He dealt seriously with the penal sanctions of the Law, and it is probably that aspect that earned him the undying enmity of so many. Yet he never backed down from Van Til's assessment that there were only two options, "autonomy or theonomy" and if God had said it, he took it seriously. It is perhaps the saddest commentary on modern Evangelical Christianity that those who knew of but rejected his scholarly work were not able (or willing) to face the logical implications of their own presuppositions.

Sadly, in this author's opinion, Rushdoony's intellectual and theological legacy will likely not be appreciated in this generation, partially due to theological inertia, partially due to the personal quirks of some of his disciples. Rush was a tremendously gracious man, kind and charitable. But some, who attached themselves to his theology have not been able to model this aspect of his character. Rushdoony used to be a popular speaker at Reformed Seminaries in the 70's, until certain followers poisoned the well with their acerbic attacks, and caustic comments, thus giving the entire movement he founded a bad name.

I knew Rush personally only for the last decade of his life. He served as one of the readers for my Ph.D. in sociology of religion, a job he did not have to do, but graciously did anyway, reading and critiquing my dissertation. I had the privilege of working with him and for him for several years at his think-tank in California, and I treasure every memory of the time I spent with him. I would not call him a "friend" for that would imply an unwarranted personal intimacy. He was not my "friend," but rather my "father" in the faith. Rush's books, bought in bulk in 1983 on my way back to England to begin my doctoral studies, changed my entire concept of Christianity. The days spent with him in his living room, surrounded by immense stacks of other books (Rush read and digested, one book a day throughout his life) was a more profound education than any course I had taken in college or seminary (and I quickly got into the habit of bringing a notebook and pen when visiting Rush, because everything he said was worth remembering). And though I did not always agree with his conclusions, I deeply appreciated his brilliance, profoundly respected him as a Christian man, and yes, I loved him as Timothy might have loved Paul.

It is a great injustice that the millions of covenant children who are being blessed by a Christian education may never know that he was the man God used to secure that right for them. It is a great injustice that though Rush provided the theological and intellectual foundation for the resurgence of the Christian Right in the 1980's, he is seldom given credit for initiating Christian activism. It is a great injustice that millions of Americans read Francis Schaeffer and never know that his most profound ideas were directly taken from Rushdoony. But Rush doesn't care, his work is done, he fought the good fight, he kept the faith and now he is at rest with his fathers. His work will live on, and perhaps a new generation, not yet born, will one day give him the honor that is his due. We will not see his like for a long time to come; God never seems to give us many Calvins, or Knoxs or Gillespies. Rush was a mighty man of valor, and the world is a poorer place without him. But there are men he taught who will continue his work, and like leaven, they will slowly and inevitably spread his ideas until that great day when every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Thank you, Rush, for your legacy. May we who are left behind remain faithful to it, and extend it, and so honor you, by honoring and obeying the gracious God you served. Rest now, in peace, until we see you again on that great day.

  • Brian M. Abshire

Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.

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