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Systematics 170429 123419
Magazine Article

The Contribution of Rousas John Rushdoony to Systematic Theology

I learned from Rushdoony that the Reformed Faith is not a mere collection of doctrines, unrelated to life. For the first time I saw the organic and systematic nature of Biblical/Reformed theology.

  • Joe Morecraft, III,
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In the middle 1960s I began embracing the Reformed Faith, and I loved what I was learning. However, I did not know what to do with these new thoughts. I kept them in the “upper story” of my mind while in the “lower story” of my life and ministry, I remained a fundamentalist. Then in the late 1960s I began reading Rushdoony and Van Til, and the “upper story” collapsed into the “lower story,” changing my whole life and ministry.

What did they teach me? Most importantly, I learned that the Reformed Faith is not a mere collection of doctrines, unrelated to life. For the first time I saw the organic and systematic nature of Biblical/Reformed theology.1 The Bible gives us a body of doctrines that are interacting, interrelated and interdependent elements forming a comprehensive, unified, and logically self-consistent system in the context of the history of the covenant in the Old Testament and New Testament. In other words, the Bible’s theology is knit material, not woven.

For Rushdoony theology “begins with the presupposition that Scripture is the word of God, and the duty of the theologian is to understand it and to apply it to every area of life and thought.”2 Furthermore, theology, to be Biblical and therefore true, must be systematic because of who God is. Systematic theology is “not an attempt to systematize scattered ideas or truths found in the Bible, but is rather a setting forth of the inescapable unity of God’s being, His revelation and His purpose.”3

Everything from God

Second, I learned from Rushdoony that systematic theology is possible only because the one, true and living God is totally sovereign, personal, immutable, truly knowable, omniscient, fully self-conscious and totally self-consistent God. Only such a God can reveal a self-consistent system of doctrine; and only about such a God is a systematic word possible.

Modern theology, based as it is upon man’s reason and experience, cannot produce a self-consistent theology. Neither can synthetic Christianity, such as Arminianism, produce a systematic theology, because it does not take seriously the full Biblical revelation, nor does it start with the premise that God is unchangeable, totally self-consistent, self-contained, fully self-conscious and absolutely sovereign. Only Reformed Christianity can develop such a systematic theology.

Systematic means that the presupposition of theology is not the mind of autonomous man but the sovereign God of Scripture … it presupposes the triune God as the only ground and means of reasoning and proof …
Systematics denies the concept of neutrality. There are no neutral facts, no neutral thoughts, no neutral man nor reason. All men, facts and thinking either begin with the sovereign and triune God, or they begin with rebellion against Him.4

A Relevant Theology

Third, when I realized that Reformed theology relates to all facets of life and culture, I was thrilled at the thought. For Rushdoony, systematic theology is something far different than an academic pursuit that is “hostile to relevance.”5 It is “the effort to apply Scripture systematically to various spheres of faith and life.”6 Its purpose is to interpret culture and society through the lens of the written Word of God, and then to seek tochange them in terms of that Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Apart from the theological foundations in the Word of God, culture and society cannot be fully understood and appreciated. This means that the directive and interpretative authority of the Bible is comprehensive and life-wide. As Van Til said:  “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc. directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication.”7

Systematic theology cannot be simply an exercise in thinking, and a systematization of Biblical thought. It must be thinking for action in terms of knowing, obeying, and honoring God by fulfilling His mandate to us. It cannot be in abstraction from battle. It is related to what happens in church, state, school, family, the arts and sciences, the vocations, and all things else.8
The Bible is a manual for dominion under God: it declares God’s word and requirements, and it summons man to obey. The Bible gives us God’s marching orders for creation. Systematic theology cannot content itself with organizing information. The incarnation is at the heart of our faith. The incarnation of God the Son is a unique event but its implications are universal. What God requires of man and the earth must be embodied in all our lives and activities, in all that we are and do, or else we deny the word, and the God who gave the word.9

Later on, as I continued to study Rushdoony, I came to see that God would use the wise and persistent application of the theology of the Bible gradually to transform culture and society. The optimism of Rushdoony’s theology attracted me. Its victory-orientation regarding history completely changed my view of culture-involvement and the future. I saw that the consistent application of systematic theology to the various aspects of life—education, family, politics, economics, and the like—works! Through our faithfulness to His Word, God changes things, making them better, I Corinthians 15:58.

The strength of Rushdoony’s way of doing theology is that he proclaims and applies systematic theology culturally, “as the ground of action to victory.”10

Now, since God is Creator of all things, and governs all things, and since there is no area of life outside of God and outside our duty to Him, it is clear that theology, the declaration of the word of God and its meaning, must govern every area of life and thought. Our Biblical and systematic theology must set forth the requirements and implications of Scripture for the total life of man and for all of creation.
Theology must speak to the whole of life. A theology which becomes an ecclesiastical discipline, and no more, denies the doctrine of creation and God’s sovereignty. It treats the God of Scripture as no more than a Greek god, governing a limited community and territory, and a small cult. The theologies of the churches today are thus implicitly polytheistic and anti-Biblical.
Theology thus must assert the Crown Rights of Christ the King over every area of life and thought. It must set forth and clarify God’s command word, the Bible, in order to arm men for action. The Bible is not a devotional manual nor an inspirational book, but a command word for the army of God. To reduce theology to an academic or an ecclesiastical matter is to deny the God of Scripture.
If the God of our theology is merely the God of our imagination, we can confine him within the walls of the classroom and the church building, and have all kinds of room left over. But, if He be the living God, then our theology will burst at the seams as it sets forth the universal commands and demands of God the Lord.11

Because of his understanding of the nature of theology, Rushdoony wrote much about a theology of politics, of education, of culture, of arts and sciences, of vocation and work, of history, and so on and on. He wrote that “a theology silent about such things will be in due time silenced and judged by God.”12

He has written around fifty books and booklets on a vast range of subjects—apologetics, philosophy, education, politics, history, religion, science, over-population, eschatology, abortion, ethics, pornography, epistemology, psychology, marriage and family, economics, inflation—and, at heart, they are all applications of the systematic theology Rushdoony found in the Bible.

The table of contents of his two-volume work on systematic theology includes chapter titles not ordinarily found in such works precisely because of his understanding of the nature and purpose of systematic theology. Therefore, we find such chapter titles as: “The Covenant and Land,” “Sado-Masochism,” “The Sociology of Justification,” “Justification and History,” “Guilt and the Slave Society,” “The Dominion Mandate,” “The Theology of the Land,” “Government as Monopoly, or, The Politics of Death,” “The Land and the Poor,” “Debt and the Future,” “Vocation and Work,” and “Theological Time.”

Inevitable and Inescapable

Fourth, Rushdoony taught me that not only is systematic theology necessary for people to think intelligently and logically, but it is also inevitable and inescapable.

Without the concept of systematics and the God it sets forth, we cannot hold to a rational and understandable universe nor to any meaningful order therein. Unregenerate man’s reasons and logic operate against the background of chaos and a meaningless void, so that reason and logic are in essence more than irrational:  they are absurd. Systematics not only makes reason reasonable, but it declares that there is a necessary and meaningful connection between all facts, because all facts are the creation of the sovereign and omnipotent God and are thus revelations of His purpose and order. The idea of preaching the whole counsel of God is only a possibility if systematics is a reality. Otherwise, there is no necessary and real connection and unity in the word of God, and we have instead a developing, changing word and plan under different dispensations. We have then a fragmented word, not a whole counsel which is a necessary and authoritative unity.13
Every man’s life is governed by an implicit systematic theology, by certain presuppositions which form a coherent whole and govern his thoughts and life …
… men are everywhere logical and systematic in their thinking. The problem lies not in their thinking but in their presuppositions.14
Man’s being requires a systematics, and he will either live or die in terms of it. His faith will lead him to action or inaction, to suicide or life. Thus, systematics cannot be avoided. The only question is, which systematics? Every non-Biblical system has collapse built into it. It rests on false premises, leads to false conclusions, and cannot give a valid and rational interpretation of the nature and purpose of life and the world.15

The Bible for All of Life

Fifth, Rushdoony clarified for me the difference between his way of applying theology to culture and that of Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, whose magnum opus is A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.

Soon after I began reading Rushdoony and Van Til, I started wading through Dooyeweerd. It was all so refreshing, liberating and mind-and-ministry-expanding, that, in my ignorance, I thought they were saying the same thing, because they all claimed to be Reformed and were focusing on culture and society. I had been given throughout my life a Neoplatonic16 interpretation of the Bible that said that our entire focus should be on the soul and heaven, that “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through,” and that our hope is that Jesus would suddenly and quietly rapture us out of this world before He turned it over to the Antichrist. Now I was able to see “the big picture” from a totally new and history-affirming perspective, and it was exhilarating.

Because Rushdoony was in California, and I was in east Tennessee, I would invite Dooyeweerdian lecturers from The Association for the Advancement of Christian Studies in Toronto to my church, because they were closer; but as I heard them, and as I read Rushdoony, I saw great differences between them.

The most obvious difference was that Rushdoony was not afraid to quote the Bible and apply it to our modern society, while the Dooyeweerdians did not.17 Their pluralism and the vast differences in theology, philosophy, politics, and economics between them and Rushdoony were becoming more obvious to me. Rather than relegating the Bible to one-fourteenth of life,18 Rushdoony taught me that the written Word of God was given to govern all aspects of human life; and that without the presupposition and application of the Word of God to every area of life, knowledge and morality are both impossible. The choice is always between Christ and chaos.

So, then, Rushdoony taught me the interrelatedness of systematic theology and life, and that that relationship is determined by the inerrant and all-sufficient Word of God. I saw that the work of doing systematic theology is not for ivory-tower academics, but for ordinary Christians trying to live to the glory of God as individuals, parents, children, church members, workers, producers, citizens and friends. Systematic theology is to be taken from the Bible and preached, taught, and lived out in our everyday lives.

“Theology belongs in the pulpit, the school, the work-place, the family, everywhere. Society as a whole is weakened when theology is neglected.”19 To claim to be a Christian who believes the Bible and to try to live as if the Bible is irrelevant to everyday issues, amounts to intellectual schizophrenia.

A Theology of Joy

Sixth, I soon learned that Rushdoony’s approach to systematic theology is enjoyable and entertaining, in the best sense of the word. He did theology from the perspective of Psalm 47:6-7, which says: Sing praises to God, sing praises:  sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing ye praises with understanding. This psalm means that “a theology of the living God will be a theology of joy, victory and confidence.”20 “This is the task of systematic theology: to sing praises to God the Lord with understanding”21 and “to declare that God is the Lord; He is the King over all creation.”22 As a person reads and studies Rushdoony’s works, he feels that joy, sense of victory, confidence in the Word of God, and attitude of praise on almost every page. Unlike many books on theology, Rushdoony’s works are not cold to the touch. They exude light and heat, moving us to service for the King.

Joe Morecraft, III, is pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church, of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hanover Presbytery, in Cumming, GA. He has been a Presbyterian pastor for over 50 years and authored several books, papers, and articles, including a five-volume, 5,000 page commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism entitled Authentic Christianity. This work is currently being translated into Italian and Brazilian Portuguese. He is married to Becky Belcher Morecraft, a singer and writer. Joe and Becky have four married children and 10 grandchildren, so far.

1. “It is plain that we are required to know the revelation that God has given us. Yet we would not adequately know that revelation if we knew it only in its several parts without bringing these parts into relation to each other. It is only as a part of the whole of the revelation of God to us that each part of that revelation appears as it is really meant to appear.” (Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology [Unpublished Syllabus, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA], p. 5).

2. R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1994), p. xv.

3. ibid., p. 82.

4. ibid., p. 60.

5. Rushdoony used this phrase in a personal letter to me in the early 1970s to describe those “conservative” Presbyterians who were opposed to their own historical emphasis of cultural involvement for the purpose of Christian reconstruction.

6. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. xv.

7. Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1998), p. 36.

8. ibid., p. 103

9.ibid., p. 103.

10. R.J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction, (Vallecito, California:  Ross House Books, 1991), p. 985.

11.ibid., pp. 984–985.

12. ibid., p. 985.

13. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 61.

14. ibid., p. 79.

15.ibid., p. 66.

16. For an explanation of Neoplatonism, see Rushdoony’s book, The Flight from Humanity: A Study of the Effect of Neoplatonism on Christianity, (Fairfax, VA:  Thoburn Press: 1978).

17. “Dooyeweerd would have the Christian philosopher do his work under the subjectively controlling grip of the ‘word of God’—not the text of Scripture … but the ‘spiritual power’ of its pre-theoretical theme of creation-fall-redemption as addressed to ‘the heart.’  Thus, Dooyeweerd contends that philosophy should be ‘controlled by’ the word (its spiritual power’) but not ‘derived from’ the Bible (its textual meaning).” (Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, p. 49.)

18. The Dooyeweerdians divided life into what they called 14 “law spheres” or “cosmic modalities,” and the textual content of the Bible is related only to “the pistical modality” or “the sphere of faith..” For an expose of the unbiblical nature of Dooyeweerdianism, see Robert Morey’s book, The Dooyeweerdian Concept of the Word of God, (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974).

19. Rushdoony,Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. xv.

20. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction, p. 985.

21. Rushdoony,Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 107.

22. ibid., p. 105.

  • Joe Morecraft, III

Dr. Joseph C. Morecraft, III, is a preacher of the gospel and a noted lecturer on contemporary political and historical trends in the United States and world at large. He is the founding pastor of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church (RPCUS) located near Atlanta, Georgia. He is married to the former Rebecca Belcher of Haysi, Virginia, who is a writer and an accomplished singer. They have four children and two grand-daughters.

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