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The Problem That Chalcedon Poses

The June 2008 issue of Church History includes a provocative article by Molly Worthen entitled “The Chalcedon Problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism.”

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede
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The June 2008 issue of Church History includes a provocative article by Molly Worthen entitled “The Chalcedon Problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism.” Worthen, a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Yale, is part of a vanguard of more sober researchers attempting to trace the significance of Rushdoony’s thought from outside the reconstructionist camp (our readership already being familiar with Michael McVicar’s intriguing work in this regard). The superior scholarship and generally elevated discourse of these newer writers is gratifying. While we dispute some of Worthen’s points, her general insights bespeak better-than-average analytic skills.

Worthen dismisses the last ten years’ worth of alarmist books and editorials, lampooning the spate of warnings to “hide your children—there is a movement afoot among conservative Christians to take over our country and give America a theocratic makeover.”1 She thinks these analysts have missed the boat:

However, while journalists have made too much of reconstructionism’s grip on mainstream evangelicalism, they have also overlooked its real significance in the development of conservative Christian thought. For a brief moment in the late twentieth century, Rushdoony challenged anyone who would call himself or herself a conservative Christian to take the whole Bible seriously—including inconvenient verses in the Old Testament that most Christians, even biblical literalists, politely ignore.2

The flaw in former analyses is easily identified. “None of this limited critical literature addresses the thought of the movement’s founder or his relationship to theological tradition or contemporary ideas and politics, settling instead for caricaturing Rushdoony as a kind of American ‘ayatollah’ who wanted to reinstate the tithe and execute blasphemers.”3 Worthen holds that even “the most responsible of these books … is still far from a scholarly and serious approach,”4 referring to one of Frederick Clarkson’s books as “somewhat sloppy and sensational.”5

Cleaning House on a Few Wrong Turns

Before getting to her strong points, we should clear the deck of Worthen’s occasional errors. A few poorly-researched slurs slip through even Worthen’s tightly-woven sieve. For example, one wonders what to do with Worthen’s casual comment that “Rushdoony did envision a society in which non-Christians who practiced their faith would be executed,” especially since the source is not something Rushdoony wrote but what he supposedly said, and the putative quote has a suspicious ellipsis in it.6 Rushdoony’s comments on Deuteronomy 13 correct this persistent distortion of his views.7

Worthen tries to cut the connection between Rushdoony and earlier postmillennialists and theonomists to make his work appear unique and unprecedented. Her depreciation of the exegetical force of Princeton Theological Seminary’s postmillennial scholarship (using terms like “hazy postmillennial quotations”8 and “fuzzy use of Charles Hodge”9) is indefensible given the actual output by noted Princetonians like Benjamin B. Warfield and Charles Hodge. Even a glancing familiarity with the sources might have prevented this mischaracterization, which seems to have taken on a life of its own among critics of postmillennialism.

Worthen thinks Rushdoony’s jot-and-tittle approach is also unprecedented: “Rushdoony and his disciples found little in the writings of the conservatives at Princeton to buttress their radical understanding of law and the Christian mandate to take dominion over society.”10 Rushdoony, she writes, “put forward an unprecedented vision of society governed by every jot and tittle of scriptural law, stripped of non-Christian cultural accretions.”11 But there were crystal-clear precedents for this vision in the exegesis of Matthew 5:18 conducted by Warfield in 191512 and Meyer in the mid-19th century.13 The failure to see the precedents causes Worthen’s misstep here.

Rushdoony was not an innovator in this area—he was restoring what had been lost. Worthen confuses the issue by reading too much into Gary North’s critique of Princeton’s apologetics, which doesn’t bear on the question of Princeton’s eschatology.14 She is closer to the truth when she traces the line of historic continuity, asserting that Rushdoony’s early writings reveal “a thinker who radicalized trends of thought long present in the Presbyterian and libertarian traditions in response to the crisis he perceived in American society.”15 We prefer to take the word radical in the sense of radix, or root— Rushdoony got to the root, the core, of the issues.

Worthen sees a pejoratively medieval monastic outlook in Rushdoony’s approach to education and intellectual progress. However, the sixth volume of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction (Symposium on Puritanism and Progress, Summer 1979) puts to rest the unfortunate caricature Worthen propagates when she states that “Rushdoony’s pedagogical ideal resembled nothing so much as the model of medieval monasteries: the study of a set body of knowledge, approved by religious authorities, as the spiritual armor necessary to further God’s cause.”16 There is no “set body of knowledge” as she imagines because consistent Calvinism sees dominion in terms of proactively expanding the body of knowledge, not gratuitously proscribing it. This same volume also refutes Worthen’s poorly-researched opinion that the “Puritans believed that there was little to be learned beyond biblical revelation.”17

Worthen’s objection that Rushdoony and his followers abuse “Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty” fails to consider that Kuyper here was inconsistent with Scripture and his own stated intentions. Rushdoony was simply putting Kuyper’s formulation on an uncompromised footing. Kuyper was a provisional stepping stone between Calvin and Van Til, not a final stopping point considered in himself.

At first, Worthen doesn’t directly call Rushdoony a racist or Holocaust-denier, putting these specific sentiments in the mouths of his critics,18 but she later casually refers to his alleged “anti-Semitism” as if that allegation had been fully established.19 Worthen’s innuendo that Rushdoony “does not go so far as to call for the execution of the Black Panthers, but perhaps he assumes it”20 certainly doesn’t elevate the scholarly tenor of her work, but rather represents a lapse.

Regarding the oft-reported schism between Gary North and Dr. Rushdoony, Worthen concludes that “the nature of the dispute is now obscure.” It’s surely not that obscure. I have a copy of the James Jordan essay that ignited the dispute, and correspondence concerning it, and I acquired it simply by asking Dr. Rushdoony for it. There’s no substitute for direct communication if you want to know something. By declaring the cause “obscure,” Worthen makes the rift seem as though it were over a trifle. It wasn’t. Rushdoony regarded Jordan’s essay, and the “fertility cult heresy” he assessed was at its core, to be unsuitable for publication in the Journal then under Dr. North’s editorship.

Worthen incorrectly identifies the author of Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators as Gary North,21 when in fact David Chilton authored that volume. One yearns for glitch-free commentaries on Christian Reconstruction, but they’re still notoriously hard to come by.

If there’s a particularly vitiating analytic weakness to Worthen’s contribution, it is its failure to address the Chalcedon Foundation’s work, focusing instead on various derivative ministries, which have either have trailed off into insignificance, irrelevance, or what she calls “softened” forms of Reconstructionism. She never goes back to the source, the Chalcedon Foundation. After a cursory mention on the opening page, the only way one would know Chalcedon still even existed is in a later aside by Worthen:

When I asked the media relations coordinator at the Chalcedon Foundation for advice on how to approach North, I was told that reaching him requires “a team of hound dogs, and the Bat Signal in the sky” and that the best way to provoke an email response would be to use the subject heading “Dr. North, You’re The Only One On the Planet That Can Answer This.” This strategy worked, within hours provoking a string of responses from North…22

This oversight is important to note, because Worthen elsewhere writes that the “Christian reconstructionist movement—defined by theologians who explicitly assent to reconstructionism’s distinctives and are actively publishing and debating—is largely dead.”23 As Mark Twain said, such reports are greatly exaggerated, especially in light of Worthen’s admission that “even a theology as radical as reconstructionism requires only a handful of well-placed and tactful advocates to make its way from the fringe to the mainstream.”24 The Chalcedon Foundation has tactful advocates, and our readership knows that the founder’s legacy is continuing to be propagated and extended with cogency, force, and intelligence. The direct descendent of Rushdoony’s work, his own foundation, was apparently left out of Worthen’s analysis entirely. It is a regrettable omission, especially in light of her own premises.

Worthen does write from a given perspective, and like Michael McVicar, hers is not a reconstructionist perspective. This fact gives rise to a divergence of view between her notions (which she apparently shares with her intended audience and thus treats as normative) and Rushdoony’s output. This is altogether natural, and we defer addressing it until the conclusion of this review.

Worthen on R. J. Rushdoony

Worthen sees Rushdoony as “a strange brand of theological genius whose ideas proved robust enough to sustain an intellectual movement”25 and is therefore motivated to lay “the groundwork for an assessment of Christian reconstructionism’s ultimate importance that is less melodramatic and more complex than that offered by recent ominous exposés of America’s Bible thumpers.”26 In this she has by and large succeeded, although her research method differs from that of McVicar’s absorbing focus on original source materials to get the story.

Contradicting faulty mainstream views of Christian Reconstruction, Worthen emphasizes that “Rushdoony did not consider himself a political activist. He was deeply skeptical of Christian political involvement and viewed politics as epiphenomenal. To Rushdoony, the desire to take over Washington had corrupted grassroots conservatives.”27

But Rushdoony’s totalistic message couldn’t help but spill over into every area of life and thought. “Rushdoony may not have viewed himself as a political activist, but his message had profound political implications.”28 This result follows because “taken as a whole, his theology proposed nothing short of the total transformation of society.”29 Worthen sees the initial linkage into real-world politics in interesting terms: “While Rushdoony’s direct contact with conservative Christian leadership was minimal, the rise of political activism among evangelicals opened the way for reconstructionist ideas and language to gain traction.”30 There was, in effect, an implicit appropriation of Rushdoony’s ideas, a factor undergirding Worthen’s subsequent assessment of Pat Robertson as “a theological opportunist.”31

The Significance of the 451 Council of Chalcedon

Many critics think Rushdoony hijacked the meaning of the 451 A.D. Council of Chalcedon entirely, pressing it into political molds without legitimate warrant. But Worthen sees it differently: “In some ways Rushdoony’s reading is closer to the understanding of the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christology was not an abstruse debate among churchmen, but a matter of immediate political concern. One’s view of Christ shaped one’s views of Caesar.”32 Worthen observes that “unsurprisingly, many fourth- and fifth-century Roman emperors favored Arianism”33 because non-Chalcedonian formulations “appealed to sovereigns who occasionally might find it convenient to blur the distinction between divine and human.”34

Worthen’s insights over the issue of sovereignty in regard to the Council of Chalcedon are on the mark. “Americans had forgotten the lesson of Chalcedon: the fundamental division of the divine from the human. They had forgotten their status as mere creatures and their utter dependency on a sovereign God. The State now claimed sovereignty for itself, and humans believed themselves sovereign over reality by their powers of logic and experience.”35 Consequently, this analysis of Worthen’s is a major advance over the plaints floated by earlier non-reconstructionist writers who sharply, but wrongly, criticized Rushdoony’s appeal to the Christological statements set forth in 451 A.D.

Worthen laments the lack of adequate follow-up on Rushdoony’s original program arising out of the supposed circle of his disciples. “His central innovation was to indict civilization’s ills and errors in the language of a fifteen-hundred-year old heresy, the obfuscation of the barrier between human and divine condemned at the Council of Chalcedon—a theme that, it is important to note, his disciples often gave short shrift.”36 As Worthen argued above, Rushdoony’s contribution was no innovation at all, seen historically. Furthermore, this thesis remains a strong emphasis of the foundation Rushdoony named after that council.

Worthen even concludes her article by returning to this issue. “Rushdoony’s thesis is that we moderns are guilty of the heresies condemned in the fifth century at Chalcedon: we blur human and divine and worship man and his creations. This argument, too often lost in the shadows of his provocative proposals for social change, is the crux of his value for today’s readers.”37 Would that more Christians could see this as clearly as Molly Worthen does. Once this point is grasped, the “provocative proposals for social change” will inevitably follow: the issue is, and since Genesis 3:5 always has been, sovereignty. Once sovereignty is properly located, all else inexorably follows.

Impact on Education

Worthen is aware of the educational trends that developed during Rushdoony’s heyday. “Between 1960 and 1975, enrollment at public and private secular schools declined by 40 percent, while conservative Protestant school enrollments quadrupled. By the peak of Rushdoony’s career at the end of the 1980s, conservative Protestants represented one of the largest segments of private education, second only to Roman Catholics.”38 She alludes to his apparent impact as an expert court witness on behalf of homeschooling and Christian schools, noting that “his name also appears in dockets from state cases in Georgia, Michigan, North Dakota, and Ohio….”39 Worthen’s interest in this lies in tracing the historic current in which Rushdoony was flowing, the current that caused him to end up in this particular place. She finds precedents in the writings of Edmund Burke and Richard Weaver, but she also sees a clear advance in Rushdoony’s thinking over their arguments, because “Rushdoony reframed these arguments in terms of God’s sovereignty and updated them for the 1960s and 1970s.”40

Another insight of Worthen’s involves Rushdoony’s doctrine of pluralism versus the conventional view of it. “Liberal education reformers, in the throes of the superstition of progress, believed they were perfecting human nature when they were, in truth, denigrating it. In Rushdoony’s view, he was the true pluralist, not the disciples of Horace Mann and John Dewey.”41 A thoroughly Biblical anthropology undergirds Rushdoony’s formulation, whereas contemporary educators’ ideas have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Rushdoony’s Biblical view of the state’s charter and calling informed his opposition to government schooling, and his rejection of humanistic pedagogical theory completed the picture. “It was the message of modern public education to which he objected, more than the means—though in Rushdoony’s extreme libertarian view, any message promulgated by means of the noxious State was by definition corrupt.”42 These form the dual axis around which Rushdoony’s view of education orbits. “Public education was so important to Rushdoony because it represented the nexus point of modern society’s twin sins of idolatry: the worship of autonomous human reason, and the worship of the state.”43  Worthen here has accurately captured the Biblical picture, although it’s doubtful she adopts this picture for herself. But the analysis, as analysis, is quite sound.

Restoring God’s Law

Worthen realizes that merely diagnosing “society’s twin sins of idolatry” is but a halfway house, and that more was called for. “Rushdoony’s diagnosis of modern religious relativism under a regime of political absolutism laid the groundwork for his magnum opus: a renovation of society according to God’s law.”44 There was no point in a critique if one had nothing better to offer in lieu of the status quo. “If Van Til provided the philosophical tools for tearing down modern humanist misconceptions, Rushdoony took responsibility for the blueprints for rebuilding society on God’s terms.”45

Regarding Rushdoony’s choice of title for his seminal 1973 volume, Institutes of Biblical Law, and its obvious allusion to Calvin’s magnum opus, Worthen wryly observes that “his claim to such esteemed intellectual ancestry is audacious but not unreasonable. Calvin’s writings contain some precedent for Rushdoony’s totalizing attitude toward Mosaic code.”46 An important part of that precedent, and this should not be missed, is Worthen’s important insight that “sanctification by law is not original to Rushdoony; it has a long history in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.”47 The too-common allegations of theological innovation in this regard are vacuous: Rushdoony did nothing but seek a consistent Biblical foundation in respect to God’s commandments.

But this question of consistency later becomes somewhat confused in Worthen’s article. Carefully consider these points she makes, paying close attention to the italics that I’ve added:

His advocacy of capital punishment for a range of activities that most moderns in the West view as only moral misdemeanors or deviations from the social norm is one of the most startling features of Christian reconstructionism, but Rushdoony reasons through it carefully.48
Here again, Rushdoony is true to the intended meaning of the Deuteronomistic authors: there are some crimes for which it is beyond human capacity to atone, either by repentance or restitution.49
In the context of the Reformed Calvinist and conservative intellectual traditions that shaped him, Rushdoony took what was, for him, only the logical next step.50
While many of his Protestant forebears saw in Old Testament law the trappings of degenerate cultic worship, Rushdoony got it right: in the Bible, law is separation of holy from profane. Moreover, the only legitimate law is that laid down by God: humans are to be ministers, not legislators.51

Although Worthen continually documents how Rushdoony is being the consistent expositor or thinker, she later ends her article by saying his position is merely “a strain of virulent intolerance that has been mistaken for intellectual consistency.”52 Well, which is it? Is Rushdoony being consistent, or is he an intolerant sociopath cloaking his pathology in theo-babble? In light of Worthen’s prior concessions, it appears that she’s the one being inconsistent. Moreover, her conclusion of inconsistency is never proven or backed up by Worthen: she simply assumes her audience will agree with it.

Seeing things even the Christian critics of Rushdoony have missed, Worthen puts her finger on a profound insight about his actual intentions. “Rushdoony viewed his mission as an attempt to restore in humankind a personal loyalty to God…”53 This was what the Old Testament prophets were all about, and Rushdoony stands shoulder to shoulder with them in living in terms of this imperative.

Accordingly, Rushdoony’s message of regeneration, not revolution is not missed by Worthen, and she gives this point its proper due:

Throughout his career he insisted that he did not propose to implement Mosaic law by theocratic coup d’etat … The social reformation he envisioned was a slow process based on individual regeneration before all else … He urged that reconstructed Christians must never choose violence, as their misguided ancestors had done in the past: the moral cleavage between the unregenerate and the redeemed “cannot be bridged by revolution but only by regeneration. A resort to arms is thus not the answer.” This apolitical plea—echoed by Rushdoony’s disciples—has offered little comfort to those who believe that the Christian reconstructionist agenda has seeped into the political Christian right.54

Worthen’s final aside above simply reflects that in a culture where power is everything, the power of an unwelcome idea will always be regarded as offensive, and treated as an unacceptable threat. In a relativistic culture where the ends justifies the means, distortion and misrepresentation and fear-mongering will become commonplace. My attendance at the two anti-dominionist conferences held in New York in 2005 yielded abundant testimony to this phenomenon, which could with justice be called basiliophobia: the fear of God’s kingdom.

Worthen then sifts through Rushdoony’s multifold contributions to tease out what she thinks is the core point she intends her readers to grasp:

Most important, he created a new theological vocabulary: a way of talking about Christian “dominion” in this life that claimed full responsibility for enacting the Kingdom of God, and had the blueprints to prove it. It is this last achievement that has led some observers to call him “the most influential theologian affecting the Christian Right today.55

While she disdains to extend her essay much beyond the origins and implications of Rushdoony’s thought, Worthen does attempt a partial sketch of subsequent events, focusing on several disparate strands that radiated outward from his circle of influence.

On Rushdoony’s “Disciples”

The story is told of Charles Spurgeon being confronted with news that one of his converts was clearly seen in a morally compromised situation—to which Spurgeon pointedly responded, “Well, he may have been one of my converts, but he certainly wasn’t one of Christ’s!”

So too, there are disciples, and then there are disciples. By and large, disciples self-consciously follow their mentor, extending his teaching, not abrogating or repudiating or watering it down. While the extreme example of Judas Iscariot is obviously over the top, we still recoil at regarding him as a disciple who is representative of his Teacher. So too here, for some (but not all) of the examples Worthen gives, the label disciple may grate on the ears of those who do follow Rushdoony closely. The picture Worthen paints of “Rushdoony’s small group of disciples” doesn’t accurately reflect the reality: it’s a shorthand expression in need of—dare we say it?—reconstruction.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Rushdoony’s small group of disciples occupied much of its time with biblical exegesis—sometimes to clarify the implications of Levitical code for modern life, but more often with the aim of refuting their opponents …The early 1990s witnessed a spate of polemical books and public debates at evangelical seminaries. For every amillennialist or premillennial dispensationalist Christian who criticized reconstructionists in print … the reconstructionists responded, within months, with selfpublished tomes defending their theology and ridiculing opponents.”56

In strategic contrast, Rushdoony made it abundantly clear that he never let his opponents set his agenda for him. He had no interest in responding to critiques, anymore than Nehemiah had an interest in chit-chat with Sanballat and Tobiah (Neh. 6:3), and for essentially the same reason: he was too busy building critical foundations to engage in unproductive debate.

The voluminous writings of Dr. Gary North logically attracted Worthen’s attention.

North’s books are remarkable for their self-congratulatory prefaces that emphasize the speed with which he generated several hundred pages to respond to a debate or a book review … “I am trying to break the seminaries’ academic black-out by exasperating them,” North writes, explaining his preference for confrontational language and his disdain for academics… He views himself as a modern-day Luther, and accuses academics of mimicking Erasmus and collaborating with the humanists…57

Interestingly, all of this rings hollow to Worthen. She looked for deep waters and reportedly found shallow puddles in much of the writings of North, Bahnsen, etc. “In general, Rushdoony’s disciples lack his intellectual confidence. They beat upon his favorite themes—North avows that there is ‘no such thing as neutrality’ and manages to quote Cornelius Van Til in nearly every book—but without Rushdoony’s philosophical insight.”58 Her conclusions regarding lack of depth might surprise many readers, but she evidently has her reasons. She lays them out in respect to Greg Bahnsen without flinching:

Bahnsen is often held up by reconstructionists as the movement’s foremost scholar, and informed readers may wonder why I have given him short shrift here. I believe his reputation is ill deserved … The motivating ideas of Christian reconstructionism, the principles that caught on among Rushdoony’s disciples and homeschoolers around the country, are only superficially present in Bahnsen’s works. Those who argue for Bahnsen’s superiority imply that by snowing critics with proof texts, he somehow brought new respectability to the movement—but the current reputation of reconstructionism proves that he failed at that task. Rushdoony, there is no doubt, was the founder of the movement and the superior mind.59

Worthen then sees provisional merit among those who have “softened” Rushdoony’s message, or who have “distanced” themselves from him in various ways, and she and some of her interviewees casually allude to the alleged death of reconstructionism as if it were a historic fact (it’s not, although it is quite true that the primary job of the Chalcedon Foundation is to make itself obsolete and unnecessary, along with all other parachurch ministries). 

Worthen spends some time discussing Jeffrey Ventrella (a man I very much respect), whom she says makes “a point of keeping his distance from Rushdoony” because of several areas of disagreement between the two men. But she also admits that Ventrella “takes Rushdoony’s legacy seriously, and he is in a position to influence the Christian Right’s approach to legislative reform and the relationship between church and state.”60

The trend away from Rushdoony is allegedly exemplified, in Worthen’s mind, by Gary DeMar. DeMar’s theological career “is another illustration of how the extreme Christian reconstructionist thought of fifteen years ago has tempered itself for popular appeal.”61 As Worthen sees it, DeMar’s ministry, American Vision, “is an active publisher of ‘soft theonomist’ literature.” Worthen identifies DeMar as “one of several writers who…have now softened their tone and transitioned into the education sector.”62 One must ask precisely who Worthen is referring to when she speaks of the “extreme Christian reconstructionist thought of fifteen years ago.”  Is she referring to Rushdoony’s output then, or someone else’s? Was it Rushdoony that was being softened, or some extreme views voiced by someone else, or simply a shift away from combative rhetoric to something more irenic? Worthen doesn’t provide this important detail.

Worthen’s Conclusion

There are two aspects to Worthen’s conclusions: her assessment of Rushdoony per se, and then her counsel to her readership concerning Rushdoony’s impact. These two aspects need to be treated separately.

First, Worthen thinks the “big picture” was the most compelling dimension of Rushdoony’s work (notwithstanding his voluminous writings on the details of God’s law in the just-completed Pentateuch commentaries):

The power of Rushdoony’s writings lay less in his strict imposition of Mosaic law on modern life than in the fact that he had a blueprint in the first place, and a philosophy of history to support it. Moreover, he spoke to the tough questions that American evangelical Christians faced. His answers were thought-provoking, to say the least. To ignore the moral complexities of the Old Testament is to commit the heresy of Marcion and deprive Christianity of its foundations; to set aside Christianity’s exclusive claims to truth and salvation may be polite, but it is intellectually dishonest.”63

While it is certainly true that Rushdoony was acutely concerned with the foundations of the faith and absolute truth, he was no less concerned about the details, “the least of these commandments” (Matt. 5:19), which comprised that absolute truth. Yes, there was power in his offering (if we could be excused for being so flippant) a package deal—but this in no way diminishes the components making up the package. To Rushdoony, it was all equally important: the philosophy of history, the blueprint, God’s ethical demands, the restoration of God as sovereign—you can’t have one without the others. This is what totalism necessarily entails. To Rushdoony, setting aside the details was no less “intellectually dishonest” than setting aside “Christianity’s exclusive claims to truth.”

Worthen returns to the matter of consistency as well:

When Rushdoony identified an intellectual crisis afoot in American Protestantism, he was right. … he also sought to impose upon conservative Christianity an intellectual consistency that it lacked. Strict Christian reconstructionists have long known that this, their most profound critique of American culture, is also the hardest for most people to swallow.64

Of course, in religious matters, we might be surprised to find that inconsistency can go by a very different name in the Bible. In Luke 12:56, our Lord calls it hypocrisy. Such inconsistency is a cloak for evading God’s ethical demands upon His creatures. It is probably no surprise then that it is hard for people to swallow. Even among Christians, Chalcedon’s message of greater responsibility will always be a hard sell. The difficulty of the task doesn’t justify altering Christ’s commandments, however.

And so we come to the second part of Worthen’s conclusion, where she upholds Abraham Kuyper’s pluralism against Rushdoony’s position, speaking of Kuyper’s “profound achievement: the reinvention of biblical Calvinist doctrine as a worldview that respects human difference without shying from God’s command to take dominion and change society for the better.”65 This Kuyperian motif, she believes, was missed by Rushdoony and his “disciples,” and she concludes that they’ve misappropriated Kuyper entirely. In Worthen’s view, the compromise that Kuyper promoted should have been honored by the reconstructionists:

Every religious tradition must broker a compromise with the society it inhabits. In America, that compromise has broken down. If Christians reject Mosaic law, they still must seriously consider the relationship between the Bible and the pluralist public square.66

But as Rushdoony himself said of the God before Whom we’re to have no other gods, “He brooks no rivals.” The entire idea of compromise yields all territory to man, God receiving only what man decides at his good pleasure to give back to Him. If God be God, and His Word inviolate, then it is society that must broker a peace with God on God’s terms. “Why halt ye between two opinions?” And this is what Rushdoony has brought, uncompromisingly, to the table: God’s terms for peace between Himself and man. To box God up as Worthen implies would be futile.

Worthen repeats the charge of intolerance in her last sentence, which includes an implicit call for somebody, anybody, to come up with opposing ideas strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with Rushdoony’s ideas: “The trouble is not that a few believers favor radical, intolerant ideas, but that frequently it seems that they are the only ones with any ideas at all.”67 It’s almost as if she’s saying, “Nobody has any ideas to counter Rushdoony’s ideas. Somebody, please, step up to the plate, with an idea that’s worthy of the name—hopefully, something that’s as consistent and compelling as Rushdoony’s ideas.”

So why should this be so, that non-reconstructionists seem to have no ideas while reconstructionists do? The answer lies in a comment Rushdoony made in his commentary on Deuteronomy. He pointed out that “the function of the prophets was to recall the people to the covenant and its law. The prophets saw a dissolving covenant, and they sought to recall the people to that bond.”68 In that light, the resolution to Worthen’s challenge becomes clear: the non-reconstructionists find themselves, by necessity, on the side of the dissolving covenant, and with that dissolution, all else dissolves with it—ideas included.

1. Molly Worthen, “The Chalcedon Problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism,” Church History 77:2 (June 2008)

2. Ibid., 400.

3. Ibid., 400.

4. Ibid., 400, footnote 5, referring to Bruce Barron’s 1992 book, Heaven on Earth? The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology.

5. Ibid., 400.

6. Ibid., 401, quoting from John Whitehead’s Slaying Dragons: The Truth Behind the Man Who Defended Paula Jones. The ellipsis appears where one would have expected Rushdoony to put in the all-critical qualification distinguishing private non-Christian worship (not problematic) with proselytizing by  covert false Christians to incite other Christians into treason against Jehovah, thus undermining the social foundations of the entire nation. His published writings put across this complete thought, as opposed to the fragmented hearsay wording found here. See footnote 7 below.

7. R. J. Rushdoony, Commentary on Deuteronomy (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2008), 204. “The subject is subversion. The text presupposes a covenant people and unbelievers living side by side. No punishment is given by this law for the pagans  who quietly continued  the practice of their old faith. The penalties are for those in the covenant people who attempted to subvert the faith, promote syncretism, or practice a sub-rosa apostasy… At any time, an Israelite could have left Israel to become an Edomite, Moabite, or Philistine… Such an action would be open and honest. What we have here is an apostate remaining in his covenant place while trying to subvert others. What is described is secret subversion, attempts to subvert others, often close relatives, in a cowardly manner.”

8. Worthen, 404.

9. Ibid., 404, footnote 19, referring to Gary DeMar’s citation of Hodge.

10. Ibid., 404-405.

11. Ibid., 406.

12. Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 293-299, esp. 297-98, from the article “Jesus’ Mission According to His Own Testimony,” first appearing in The Princeton Theological Review in 1915. Warfield holds that “all the jots and all the tittles of the law shall be accomplished. Not one shall fail. The expression itself is equivalent to a declaration that a time shall come when in this detailed perfection, the law shall be observed” (298). The “breaking of one of the least of these—these jots and tittles of—commandments, and the teaching of men so, is no small matter…” (ibid)

13. Meyer’s commentary first appeared in English translation in 1883, a decade after he died. His exegesis supports Warfield’s later exposition with considerable force. H.A.W. Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Hand-Book to the Gospel of Matthew (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, 1980 reprint, originally printed 1883 by T & T Clark), 122-123.

14. Worthen, 405, footnote 20.

15. Ibid., 404.

16. Ibid., 416.

17. Ibid., 420.

18. Ibid., 417.

19. Ibid., 419.

20. Ibid., 424.

21. Ibid., 429.

22. Ibid., 427. The “string of responses,” Worthen informs the reader, included “detailing the history of the Volker Fund, chiding me for my ‘humanist mindset,’ and warning that I would uncover a groundbreaking story of political influence if I had the wherewithal to ‘follow the money.’” Worthen never explains whether the Volker Fund was any less “shadowy” (p. 402) in light of North’s revelations, nor does she let the reader know how humanistic her mindset happens to be; and if she followed any money, she certainly couldn’t have followed it to Chalcedon, or we would have seen it arrive here.

23. Ibid., 435.

24. Ibid., 432.

25. Ibid., 401.

26. Ibid., 401.

27. Ibid., 403.

28. Ibid., 403.

29. Ibid., 404.

30. Ibid., 431.

31. Ibid., 432.

32. Ibid., 408.

33. Ibid., 408.

34. Ibid., 408.

35. Ibid., 409.

36. Ibid., 425.

37. Ibid., 437

38. Ibid., 412.

39. Ibid., 412.

40. Ibid., 415.

41. Ibid., 415-416.

42. Ibid., 416.

43. Ibid., 417.

44. Ibid., 419.

45. Ibid., 421.

46. Ibid., 419.

47. Ibid., 421, footnote 77.

48.. Ibid., 424. The citation is taken from Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law, 225.

49. Ibid., 424.

50. Ibid., 436.

51. Ibid., 419.

52. Ibid., 436.

53. Ibid., 423.

54. Ibid., 425.

55. Ibid., 425-426.

56. Ibid., 429.

57. Ibid., 429.

58. Ibid., 430.

59. Ibid., 430, footnote 116. Worthen evidently didn’t have access to recordings of Dr. Bahnsen’s debates. Had she listened to them, she may have moderated her views somewhat, assuming that she thought any lasting merit could arise from such debates, which appears doubtful in light of her deprecation of polemics and debates in her body text.

60. Ibid., 433.

61. Ibid., 433.

62. Ibid., 434.

63. Ibid., 434-435.

64. Ibid., 435.

65. Ibid., 436.

66. Ibid., 437.

67. Ibid., 437.

68. Rushdoony, Deuteronomy 275.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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