Reflecting on Rushdoony: Ten Years Later

It was around ten years ago that I was introduced to the thought of R.J. Rushdoony.  I am not entirely sure if that is a good thing or not.   I will put my cards on the table:  this post will be largely appreciative of most of Rushdoony’s work.  However, to anticipate objections, I will list the problems with Rushdoony–and even more particularly, his followers–first, then I will end with the good.

Where he is wrong, he is big-time wrong.  Ironically, this is actually a good thing.  Yes, his cutting himself off from the church probably didn’t help his cause.   His insistence on the food laws is so contrary to even the most prima-facie reading of the New Testament, it’s hard to even imagine.   Given all of that, is anyone really tempted to follow him on these points?   I doubt it.   And if such a person is willing to follow him on the food laws, that person was probably unhinged before he read Rushdoony.

Did he pick the wrong kind of theonomy?  I don’t hold to the Bahnsenian theonomic thesis just because I don’t think it can stand exegetically.   The problem, though, is that Bahnsen was such a masterful debater, all of the Reformed world (well, RTS and Westminster) were too scared to debate him.  Therefore, Bahnsen won by default.  Unfortunately, I don’t think his theonomy works.   Fortunately, one can get roughly the same bottom-line package from Rutherford.

Myopia.  I hate statism as much as the next guy.  I get the impression, however, that Rushdoony made the negation of statism the focal point of his theology.  When you read his book on the early church, you get the impression that Athanasius was primarily concerned with attacking Big Government.

The Good

He is probably the reason that the State hasn’t arrested your pastor for having a Christian school, or arrested your mother/father for homeschooling you.   One of the worst ironies in 20th century Calvindom is that The reformed seminaries spent so much time attacking Rushdoony and Bahnsen, when in fact Rushdoony regularly appeared as a key witness on behalf of homeschoolers as they faced jailtime.   These court victories no doubt formed case laws and precedents that allow many to home school today.

Engaging writing.  He read a book a day for fifty years.  He spent three hours a day in Bible study.  His writing style is always forceful and interesting.

Wider perspective on life.  People who read widely and travel widely over many decades have a rich perspective on life.   His lectures on history are always fantastic.  He is able to find that rare anecdote from some ancient volume.

He prophesied the coming crisis.  As America spirals out of control, most people will start reading his stuff on politics and economics.   Start with The Politics of Guilt and Pity.

He made Calvinism applicable.  What’s the connection between economics and Calvinism?  Rush explored those areas.

Forceful lecturer.  Some people thought his “grandfatherly voice” was boring.  I always thought he was quite forceful in the pulpit and lectern.    Legend has it–not really legend, actually happened–that he was allowed five minutes to speak to the Mississippi State Congress on Law and Society.   He gave a stirring talk and literally ended his talk on the last second of the five minutes.   You can listen to free lecturers here.

The Problem with his Followers

Many of his young acolytes had only a rather tentative grasp on the Reformed faith.  They read Rushdoony books by the dozen, yet had likely never read Owen or Calvin; certainly had not read Turretin.   The Bourgeoisie Reformed responded that you should read Calvin, not Rushdoony–but that, too, is false.  The problem is his followers should have spent a few years reading only the magisterial Protestants, then Rushdoony.

Where I specifically disagree with Rushdoony

He bashes experimental Calvinism.  I don’t.  There appears to be a prima facie tension in Reformed history between the dominion and conflict strand (represented by Rushdoony) and the experimental strand (represented by Banner of Truth).   There should be no conflict.  One can bridge this gap with the theology and practice of the Scottish Covenanters.  Read Richard Cameron and David Cargill sermons preached only weeks before their martyrdom.


9 comments on “Reflecting on Rushdoony: Ten Years Later

  1. Benjamin P. Glaser says:

    This is really excellent. I find myself agree very much with this. It is pretty much spot-on with my own thoughts.

  2. N says:

    You need to compare and contrast Rutherford with Bahnsen

  3. N says:

    In 2005 you shared your views here:
    What has changed since then? What improvement can Rutherford offer to Bahnsen? What does “general equity” mean?

    • Sadly, I wish I could go back and edit most of my old PB posts. I have nothing to do with essentially any of Jordan’s distinctives. At the time I thought Jordan gave an interesting critique of theonomy. Jordan’s actual critique of Bahnsen is fine. His proposal is another thing.

      I do plan on doing contrasts betwixt Rutherford and Bahnsen. It might take a while.

  4. Angela Wittman says:

    I haven’t compared Bahnsen with Rutherford, but my impression is they might not differ too much on their views of the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ and how that relates to the state and our responsibilities as followers of Jesus Christ. My agreement with what Jacob has written is due to my experience with those who have studied Rushdoony, but not the early reformers and the Scottish Covenanters. Their view on the application of Biblical principles to civil law would be much more full and rock solid if they would dig a little deeper and seek to understand the importance of national covenanting. Also, I want to give thanks and praise to the Lord for Jacob and his willingness to seek out those deeper things of God. He’s one of my favorite bloggers.

  5. N says:

    Here are some helpful quotes from Rutherford:
    I also have the green hardback edition of Lex Rex with the anachronistic typesetting. Bahnsen seems to be articulating a more systematic, rigorous formula that agrees in most particulars with Rutherford’s conclusions. I have not yet found a concrete thesis in Rutherford which gives me his method of discerning how far the general equity extends into each judicial law and thus how much of it remains normative. If you can make a stab at articulating such a principle as Rutherford might have been employing, it will make my reading of him more productive.

    • I’m looking at it this way: Rutherford employed (or at least assumed) many of the judicials. He also employed the language (and concepts?) of the then-current natural law theories–and he saw no contradiction between the two.

      On another note, as I mentioned today in another post, American theonomists are closet-libertarians with regard to government and market. Scottish theonomists are not. That’s neither good nor bad; just an observation.

      • Angela Wittman says:

        “On another note, as I mentioned today in another post, American theonomists are closet-libertarians with regard to government and market. Scottish theonomists are not. That’s neither good nor bad; just an observation.”

        Good observation! I agree and still struggle with my libertarian leanings; I excuse it as being an American. 🙂

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