Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Magazine Article

The Story of an Idea

Typically, most historical accounts begin with the date and location of the birth of the founder. When discussing Christian Reconstruction this is not what’s important. Rushdoony would consider it irrelevant. The proper starting point is the birth of the ideas.

  • Christopher J. Ortiz,
Share this

Celebrating the history of the Chalcedon Foundation and the work of R. J. Rushdoony (“Rush”) is a difficult thing to do. Rush would frown on any attempts to cover or acknowledge the history of an institution — he was about ideas not organizations.  Because of this, the history and people involved are scattered and diffused. In terms of the organization there is no clear line of growth. The only measurable growth is the ever-increasing influence of the message. That’s what Rush was working towards.

But it is practical to share a particular angle of the story of Chalcedon, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the history of Christian Reconstruction.1

Typically, most historical accounts begin with the date and location of the birth of the founder. When discussing Christian Reconstruction this is not what’s important. Rushdoony would consider it irrelevant. The proper starting point is the birth of the ideas.

Theonomy or Autonomy

He was a long way from his last home in Santa Cruz, California, in 1946 when the thirty-year-old Rousas experienced the great transformation to his thinking. Isolated within the 400 square miles of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Owyhee, Nevada, this contemplative missionary-pastor had already spent a year and a half carving out the Kingdom of God among the Western Shoshone Indians.

Rousas was of medium height with dark hair, olive skin, and a silent look that left one wondering what was transpiring behind his deep eyes and pronounced brow. He sparked the curiosity of the Duck Valley residents. Like most Native Americans, their culture was not noted for its scholarship. Life was basic, with time spent on bare necessities, not penetrating the lofty ideas found in books. Theirs was an oral tradition animated by story and legend. Rousas, on the other hand, was a man of written words and rigorous thinking. In this environment the studious young missionary was as out of place as a Cadillac on the Moon.

He didn’t seem to need many supplies on the reservation — only books. The Shoshones would watch with interest as Rousas frequently received a delivery of books to his mailbox. He seemed oblivious to his onlookers as he tore open each package and began reading as he walked back to his home — never lifting his head.

Rushdoony received numerous books during his stint on the reservation, but one volume in particular affected him deeply. The New Modernism by Dr. Cornelius Van Til was a new release in 1946 and promised An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner — something the young Rousas was much interested in due to the widening influence of modernism in Protestant circles. Dr. Van Til was a sober but humorous Dutchman whose slender frame and thick glasses disguised his long history as a trenchant defender of the Christian faith.  He was the professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and from that single location launched a sustained campaign against humanism, modernity, and their Christian cousin, neo-orthodoxy.

Despite the theological strength of such establishments as Westminster, modernism continued its determined march into the Second World War. Its influence was felt in many spheres but only the intellectually astute were aware of its harmful chemistry. The lone pastor on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation was one such watchman who viewed modernity and humanism as great threats to the historic faith and America’s Christian heritage.

By reading Van Til, Rushdoony encountered a single man’s uncompromising approach to defending the faith. This appealed to Rush, who had been reared in a home adhering to the veracity of the Scriptures, and his keen sense of logic would not allow him any shades of grey when considering the starting point for all thought.

Van Til’s War

Humanism, along with modernism, made man the starting point for all thought. Modern humanism bore the reeking grave clothes of 19th century rationalism. Autonomous man could creatively construct his own knowledge to interpret the raw stuff of human experience. Man’s knowledge was not reflective of God; it was completely his own doing. Man therefore claimed an ultimacy only reserved for God Himself.

Neo-orthodoxy revised this theme and declared God as both “wholly hidden and wholly revealed.” This dense language has a basic idea. Since man, as Kant indicated, cannot say anything factual about things outside of his experience (viz. “things in themselves” apart from experience), then the orthodox view of God is false — the view that true things can be said about a God who is beyond experience. The neo-orthodox agreed. They saw God as “wholly hidden” and beyond reason’s ability to grasp. In an effort to preserve Christianity they still argued that God was “wholly revealed” in Christ; but that revelation was existential, and Van Til radically opposed this modernistic formulation as a denial and not a defense of the Christian faith.

Much of contemporary Protestantism reacted negatively to Van Til’s thesis. Rushdoony would later describe the public reaction to Van Til’s New Modernism as “an unspeakable offense, an outrage, a desecration of all philosophy and theology.”2 Strong words indeed. Van Til was speaking in a language Rushdoony understood. A faithful Christian must begin and end with the self-attesting Christ revealed in Scripture. For many years Rushdoony would hold up Van Til’s New Modernism as “the definitive work in its field, often abused and slandered but never answered.”3

Van Tilian Ethics

Rushdoony continued devouring Van Til’s works while thinking of Biblical ways to apply the philosophy. In Van Til’s classic Christian Theistic Ethics a single sentence set Rushdoony on a path to outlining the Christian world and life view as revealed in the Bible: “There is no alternative but that of theonomy or autonomy.”4

In addressing the issue of ethics Van Til concluded that every ethical decision is either an expression of God’s law (theonomy) or man’s (autonomy). There was no middle ground. How could there be? There were no other authoritative sources remaining. This was the conflict in the Garden of Eden and remains the essential conflict today. Who will determine right and wrong, God or man?

From the current state of society we can easily see the fruit of a world ruled by the law of man. Tyranny, perversion, and theft permeate human civilization in the guise of man’s divine legislation. Man then heaps on even more laws until something like the tax code is unreadable and bureaucracy overwhelms basic categories like food, education, and transportation. There is no end to man’s futile efforts to establish dominion upon the dictates of his sinful mind. His thoughts are evil continually.

But what would a world governed by God’s law look like? That was the question affecting Rushdoony after his reading of Van Til. Dr. Van Til had not explored those possibilities; he had only identified the core issue and demonstrated the weakness of autonomous man’s ethical presuppositions. The task of developing the theonomic approach to ethics became Rushdoony’s and he exercised a ceaseless discipline in launching one of the most significant ideas in modern Christendom.

Educational Emphasis

From an early age Rush was a voracious and independent reader. He consumed the standard lot of fiction and history, but also read the entire Bible through many times while still a teenager. Although thoroughly Armenian, Rush was enthralled with American history and occupied much of his tireless reading gleaning the tale of a nation established upon the Christian faith.

It was no surprise then that the young Rousas pursued higher academics.  He attended the University of California at Berkeley and eventually earned a graduate degree in literature.  However, the ivory halls of academia disillusioned the erudite Rushdoony.  He considered it a degenerate institution whose purpose was to cultivate universal humanism. Yet he had a passion for education, and like the humanist elite, saw education as the primary tool for making the “whole man.” As a Van Tilian he did not view education as a neutral sphere devoid of any particular philosophy. As in every area of life, education is inherently religious.

Just three years after the publication of his first book, By What Standard?, Rushdoony released a thoughtful volume in 1961 on applied presuppositionalism — the subject was educational theory, and the book was Intellectual Schizophrenia. It was a stinging exposé of the contradictory philosophy of public education. His early lectures on this topic were central to launching the awakening of Christian education.

These books further positioned Rushdoony as a cogent thinker and writer of the Christian worldview and its implications for society. There were many more books to write, yet financial support was needed to address the issues properly. The funding for further research came from the William Volker Fund — a charitable organization espousing free market economics and libertarian political ideas. Started in 1932 by William Volker, this fund was integral to steering and influencing the primary figures in Austrian economics (e.g., Hayek, Rothbard, Friedman).

The research grants from the Volker Fund also financed Rush’s work at Stanford University where he produced the still dynamic Messianic Character of American Education. These early volumes, still used today, would become the intellectual foundation of the Christian education movement.

The Reader and the Writer

During the early ‘60s Rushdoony adopted a prudent method for writing books. He frequently lectured on various subjects, and this output was due primarily to his passion for learning. Being a systematic thinker and brilliant topical organizer, he multiplied his efforts by transforming his lectures into books, essays, and articles. For the rest of his ministry years he utilized this same method for producing most of his work.

His had a simple process of diligent reading on a wide range of topics. An insatiable interest in the multi-faceted world God had made inspired him to inquire how God’s law might apply to every sphere of life. He consumed anything he could get his hands on. Journals, newspapers, magazines, and books would pile up in his home as he gathered the resources for his work. His personal collection of newspaper clippings was enormous.

He also carried books wherever he went. He would read in the checkout line at a grocery store or in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. He would take a suitcase of books when he traveled and shop for more books while abroad. He’d often have to use additional baggage to get new finds back home, or have his host ship them after he left.

However, he didn’t simply read the books as one might read a novel. Once he received a new book he would generally spend a couple of hours just perusing it. He would read the table of contents and index. He would skim each page and randomly dip into a few paragraphs here and there.  His goal was simply to get the flavor of the book and decide if it warranted a more careful reading. If it did, he would put it aside for proper reading at a later date. If it did not demand a more careful reading he would simply place it on the shelf. He would not get rid of it. Books were his treasure whether they were good or bad.

Once it came time to read a book thoroughly, he was already familiar with its basic content. This let him increase the speed of his inspectional reading. When you’re reading an academic work outside of your field of expertise it helps to know the basic argument before you start on it! This was wise of Rushdoony, since with this method he consumed an average of one book per day for the remainder of his life.

It wasn’t enough simply to read a book. Since writing was a major part of Rushdoony’s labor, it was necessary for him carefully to glean information out of each book that was useful to his work. This demonstrates a unique quality about Rushdoony’s scholarship: he worked in terms of a life thesis. He did not take a journalistic approach,  waiting for a story of interest to come along. For Rushdoony scholarship was a method to his calling and not the calling itself. His calling, or life thesis, was to apply God’s Word to every facet of life and thought. That’s why he read so broadly. He was driven to examine what God’s Word had to say about every sphere of life.

To better retain the gleaned portions of a book, he consistently marked or highlighted important passages with a straight rule and pencil. He noted important highlights by listing them in his own index written in the back pages of each book. He also wrote down the date he started and finished a book.

From these extensive readings he penned streams of essay-like lectures on various subjects, often citing the numerous sources he’d read on each subject. And this is all in addition to his long-time commitment to spend 3 to 4 hours per day in intensive Bible study. When he then presented the lectures in a public forum, he would pause at the end for questions. He made note of important insights and reworked his written lecture in terms of the questions asked. These lecture series would eventually become books or portions of a book.

Gary North

Rushdoony’s books have impacted countless lives, both layman and leader. Rare is the author that can captivate such a wide audience, but Rushdoony was especially attractive to astute young scholars.

One young student in the early ‘60s had his interest piqued by Rushdoony’s work — Gary North. While still in college when they met, North began a correspondence with Rushdoony that would develop into a working relationship. In these early years Rushdoony took interest in North and provided him with a list of recommended reading that included a healthy dose of Van Til. Seeing obvious skill in the budding scholar, Rushdoony later hired North part-time at the Volker Fund to help subsidize his continued education at Westminster Theological Seminary. Rushdoony wanted North to study directly under Van Til. There were other advantages to North being at Westminster. Professor John Murray’s lectures on Romans 11 convinced North to adopt a postmillennial eschatology.

Chalcedon’s Foundation

Rushdoony continued his subsidized research at the Volker Fund until 1965 when the Fund was shut down. Volker still paid Rushdoony a retainer to apply a Van Tilian approach to a philosophical knot that long perplexed Western thinkers. This underwritten research produced The One and the Many. Even though it made few ripples in mainstream academic waters, today it is still a penetrating display that only the triune God can make reality intelligible. It was finally published in 1971.

Soon after his leaving the Volker Fund in 1965 a small number of committed supporters requested that he hold regular Bible studies in Southern California. Rushdoony agreed and his family relocated. Donations from these supporters helped to underwrite his continued research and writing. By this time Rushdoony was clear on the direction of his work and felt it necessary to incorporate his own organization — in 1965 the Chalcedon Foundation was formed.

Choosing the name from the integral Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, Rushdoony saw the council’s definition of the true nature of Christ as “truly God and truly man” as crucial to placing a limitation upon all human authority. Only the God-man Jesus Christ had supreme authority within the confines of history. No institution could exalt itself above Him.

On October 1, 1965, a single-page mimeographed report was sent out to this fledgling group of supporters. This was the first installment of what would one day become the Chalcedon Report. It was in his second newsletter (October 31, 1965) that he first used the phrase Christian Reconstruction in print.

Why the Term “Christian Reconstruction”?

It is often speculated that Christian Reconstruction parrots the reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. There is a sense in which that is true, but Rushdoony’s definition carried major philosophical nuances.

Understanding the roots of Christian Reconstruction begins with Rushdoony’s father in the faith, Dr. Cornelius Van Til. Van Til spent much of his philosophical work criticizing the epistemological errors of humanistic thought while establishing the foundations of a Christian epistemology. Essentially, Van Til argued for two approaches to knowledge: the first being the constructive approach to knowledge where autonomous man constructs his knowledge from his experience — this leads to his godhood (Gen. 3:5); the second approach to knowledge is the Christian view which is reconstructive. In this sense Christians reconstruct their knowledge after the revelation of God — they are thinking God’s thoughts after Him.

When the apostle Paul presents the Christian warfare in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, he describes it as “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” That is the central work of Christian Reconstruction: to bring all things in subjection to Christ. We are to reconstruct all areas of life along Biblical lines by reorienting man’s thinking to reflect the thoughts of God. God’s thinking is contained in His Word.

The First Few Years

The work at Chalcedon increased steadily over the next few years and more demands were placed on Rushdoony’s time. In 1971, Rush hired his protégé Gary North on a part-time basis. This again brought needed financial assistance to North’s education as he was completing a Ph.D. in history. Although North ended up joining the senior staff at the Foundation for Economic Education in that same year, he still found his way back to Rushdoony in 1973 when he joined the Chalcedon staff full-time.

Also in 1973, a young, ambitious seminarian named Greg Bahnsen joined the staff of Chalcedon. Bahnsen had recently finished his graduate work at Westminster Theological Seminary and was pursuing his doctorate in philosophy at USC while he worked at Chalcedon. Anyone who is familiar with the work and ministries of Dr. Gary North and Dr. Greg Bahnsen can appreciate the unique moment this was in modern church history. The intellectual capital of Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen produced a synergy that escalated the influence of Christian Reconstruction in the early ‘70s.

The Institutes of Biblical Law

Like most of his books, the Institutes were originally given as lectures and reworked for publication. Rushdoony delivered these lectures over a three-year period to a myriad of groups ranging from students to civil officials. It was revolutionary in that it put the brakes on the ever-changing views of God and Christian ethics:

It is a modern heresy that holds that the law of God has no meaning nor any binding force for man today. It is an aspect of the influence of humanistic and evolutionary thought on the church, and it posits an evolving, developing God. This “dispensational” god expressed himself in law in an earlier age, then later expressed himself by grace alone, and is now perhaps to express himself in still another way.… The Institutes of Biblical Law has as its purpose a reversal of the present trend. It is called “Institutes” in the older meaning of that word, i.e., fundamental principles, here of law, because it is intended as a beginning, as an instituting consideration of that law which must govern society, and which shall govern society under God. (p.2)

Critics often refer to Rushdoony’s Institutes as the seminal work that launched Christian Reconstruction. There is no doubt that the book was pivotal to the expansion of the idea in the ‘70s, but the work of Christian Reconstruction was several years old when the book was published.

Despite his solid writing up to this time there was a virtual blackout for Rushdoony’s books. The Institutes of Biblical Law was not reviewed for three years until Professor John Frame insisted the Westminster Theological Journal publish his review of the neglected volume.

The Institutes received harsh criticisms within and without contemporary Christendom. Much of this criticism remains today, as anti-God pundits continually rehash overworked arguments against Rushdoony’s presentation of the death penalty, inter-racial marriage, theocracy, and religious toleration. Rushdoony marveled that his critics spent so much time on subjects he covered in passing. His purpose was to exposit God’s law, and the law was filled with references to capital punishment and interaction with false religions. What was he to do, ignore the exposition of these passages in favor of being politically correct?

The Journal of Christian Reconstruction

In 1974 Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen discussed the launching of a serious publication “aimed at intelligent laymen, working pastors, and others who are interested in the reconstruction of all spheres of human existence in terms of the standards of the Old and New Testaments.”5 It was to fill the gap between academic journals too distant from the reading churchgoer and the plethora of popular Christian magazines.

Gary North served for six years as the editor of The Journal of Christian Reconstruction. His editorial skills, work ethic, and networking abilities produced lasting journals that are still referenced thirty years later. The journal was published twice a year and was served by a handful of editors in its 25-year history. (Chalcedon is currently creating digital versions of the entire library of journals that should be accessible in 2006.)

The Dispersion

By 1976 God began to stir the nest at Chalcedon and both Gary North and Greg Bahnsen left Chalcedon to pursue their callings elsewhere. Bahnsen took a teaching position at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and Gary North joined the research staff of Congressman Ron Paul. North made several moves across the United States and ultimately landed in Tyler, Texas, where he continued his Institute for Christian Economics and a productive newsletter publishing business.

It was during the 1970s that Rushdoony gained stature as an expert witness in numerous court cases across America involving homeschooling families and Christian private schools. The early days of Christian education in America were difficult, as a number of church leaders and families faced prosecution for keeping their children out of the public school system. Rushdoony’s expert testimony greatly assisted Christians from diverse denominations.

The Religious Right

By the late ‘70s America was a disillusioned nation. Reeling from the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, feminism, and an ongoing energy crisis, it seemed American culture was splitting in numerous directions. During this time the church was all but quiet except for the “Jesus movement” and the corresponding Charismatic movement.

But things were changing politically for Christians with the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. A growing tension between mainstream fundamentalism and the secularists spawned a groundswell of political activism within the Christian community. These same Christians were disappointed with the so-called “born again” President Jimmy Carter, and in 1980 helped to elect President Ronald Reagan in a landslide victory.

Garnering these millions of Christian voters were Moral Majority leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Paul Weyrich. This huge evangelical contingency secured two terms for Ronald Reagan and stamped conservative Christianity on the landscape of American politics.

Many of these Christian political insiders gave credit to the work of R. J. Rushdoony. This was early recognized in a February, 1981, issue of Newsweek, which examined who’s who in the Religious Right after the surprising victory of Ronald Reagan. Many personalities and publishers were mentioned, but when it came to the category of “Think Tank” there was only one listing: the Chalcedon Foundation.

It was the writings of R. J. Rushdoony that provided the theological framework for Christian social responsibility. Since the time of Prohibition the church had been virtually silent politically; but increasing immorality, a burgeoning Federal government, and secular opposition provoked many Christian leaders to political activism. Rushdoony provided them with the Biblical theology of the state and the proper role of the Christian in society.

Marching On

Chalcedon continued its growth and influence throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was during the 1980s that Christian Reconstruction made a significant impact on the massive Charismatic movement. It was during that time that my own worldview was turned upside down by Christian Reconstruction, and I labored for years working to bring more Charismatics like myself to the solidity of the Reformed faith, an optimistic eschatology, and the application of God’s law.

Numerous writers, lawyers, politicians, professors, entertainers, and pastors gave credit to Rushdoony’s work as a catalyst to their own development. This is a testimony to the comprehensive nature of Rushdoony’s thought. He did not appeal to just one group or individual because his worldview was all-inclusive and embraced every area of life. This was the great appeal of Christian Reconstruction. It was as if he had made everyone’s vocation a calling. This was nothing new. The Puritans had written similar things. That’s why Christian Reconstruction is often referred to as neo-Puritanism — it makes glorious the vocation of every man or woman and shows that all things must glorify God.

R. J. Rushdoony passed away on February 8, 2001, surrounded by his family in the comfort of his own home. Included in some of his final words was the restatement of his calling to victory:

“The victory is ours and we must fight. May He give you all strength to fight the battle. We have a battle to fight and an obligation to win. We have a certain victory. We are ordained to victory.”

This is the sum of all things — victory in Christ and for His Kingdom. This is why institutions are meaningless emblems. Men make movements to glorify man’s efforts. Rushdoony glorified the idea of victory and the victory of the idea. He looked for the expression of the idea to be manifest in every sphere, not only in the Chalcedon Foundation. This is why Christian Reconstruction thrives to this day. It cannot be subverted because it is not contained in a board of trustees or the coffers of a foundation. The idea is in you and me, and our proper response is to pass it along to those we know and love and to as many as the Lord our God shall call.

1 For more detailed information on the history of Chalcedon and the life of R. J. Rushdoony see A Comprehensive Faith: An International Festschrift for Rousas John Rushdoony (available at; and the Chalcedon Report, Issue 429, April 2001. You can obtain a copy of this back issue by calling 209-736-4365 ext. 12.

2 Rousas John Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Vallecito, CA, 1958), 20.

3 Ibid., 155.

4 Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (Philadelphia, PA, 1940, 1947), 134.

5 taken from the inside cover of the first issue

  • Christopher J. Ortiz

Christopher J. Ortiz is a freelance writer and independent communications specialist servicing churches, ministries, and publishers.

More by Christopher J. Ortiz