The Vision of R.J. Rushdoony
The Vision of R.J. Rushdoony
Mark R. Rushdoony » Bio
October 17, 2005
[The following is the text of a talk given September 16, 2005, at Chalcedon’s 40th Anniversary Conference in Cumming, GA]
As this is a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of Chalcedon, I would like to share some things I do not normally have a chance to relate, except in bits and pieces in private conversation. I would like to talk about Chalcedon’s origins from the perspective of the life and ministry of its founder, my father, Rousas John Rushdoony. God’s sovereign providence is evident in how my father even came to be born in America. In order to explain how his thinking developed, I have to go back to the Old World in which he was conceived.
My paternal grandparents lived in Van, Armenia, which for centuries had been part of the Ottoman Empire, now called Turkey. Armenia was an ancient nation, one mentioned in the Old Testament and which had adopted Christianity in AD 301, the first nation to do so. The family roots went back countless generations. My grandfather was born in a small mountain village, where he played in the local cemetery and memorized the names of his ancestors going back centuries. My father recalled how, decades later, he would recite their names as he shaved. The Rushdoonys were one of the ancient royal lines. My father’s first name, Rousas, comes from several ancient kings. His is a transliteration of the name often now given as “Rusas.” The 7th century BC shield of one of those Armenian kings, Rusas III, is on display in the British Museum. Likewise, the name “Rushdoony,” which means “house, town, or dynasty of Rusas,” has been transliterated in several ways by historians — “Rushtuni,” for instance.
The Armenian people lived, however, as a Christian people in a Muslim world. The Armenians were hated because they were considered infidels in the Muslim-controlled Empire. There had been several periods of massacres directed against the Armenians for a generation prior to WWI. In one of these my great grandfather, a priest in the Armenian Orthodox Church, was blinded and later murdered by Turkish Muslims. My grandfather, Y.K. Rushdoony, was then an orphan at age 11. Extended family members cared for him for a time, but he was such a bright young man they put him into a new orphanage and school run by an American missionary, Dr. George C. Raynolds. These events brought my grandfather out of the ancestral mountain village to the city of Van and under the influence of American Presbyterianism. My grandfather finished his primary education and, with the help of the American mission, went on to college in Turkey and graduate work in Edinburgh, Scotland.
He was offered a position in Fresno, California, as a pastor of an Armenian Presbyterian church when he finished his studies, but declined, preferring instead to return to help the Armenian people. He then returned to Van and taught at the orphanage as well as in outlying villages. Because of his education and association with the American mission, he was arrested four times by Turkish officials, and three attempts were made on his life. In Van he married my grandmother, the daughter of a prominent merchant. Their first child was born in 1914 at the mission hospital. His name was Rousas George.
When WWI broke out, the Turkish government put in motion a long-hoped-for ideal, the elimination all non-Turks from the empire. Thus began the first genocide of the 20th century. In most of Armenia this took the form of deportations. With no notice, Armenians were ordered to leave all behind on the promise that they would be allowed to return in a few days. Few ever reached their purported destinations. Most were marched to their deaths. Most were murdered, sold into slavery, or died from the rigors of their treatment. Bullets were valuable commodities in wartime, so these murders were particularly brutal. Men, women, and children were clubbed to death, drowned, stabbed, or burnt to death.
Things transpired a little differently in the province of Van. There the method was overt massacre, beginning in outlying areas. None of the Rushdoonys from the ancestral village survived. The city of Van, however, contained the largest single concentration of Armenians in the empire. There, word of the massacres in outlying areas caused a hurried defense to be made, just enough to hold the advancing Turkish army at bay. Czarist Russian forces came from the north and helped lift the siege. Three days before the siege ended, Rousas George Rushdoony died. He was 11 months old.
For a few weeks the Armenians were free of Islamic control for the first time in many generations. While the forced marches, enslavement, and massacres continued in other areas, the Armenians in Van were safe. But the war went badly for Russia. As you recall, the conduct of the war became one of the grievances used by the Bolsheviks to justify their revolution against the Czar.
The Russian army was told it would not be supplied for the winter. With the coming of a Turkish advance, the Armenians in Van were given a few-hours’ notice to evacuate toward the Russian border, over 100 miles to the northeast.
The Rushdoonys and some extended family were among the last to leave. Rose Rushdoony, distraught over the recent loss of her son and then pregnant with my father, had been staying with relatives and was late arriving back in Van. The actions of a Russian officer were instrumental in their escape. This officer enjoyed having tea with my grandparents because he could communicate with my grandfather in French. My grandmother did some of his mending and laundry. Because of this friendship, this officer received permission to release to my grandparents two horses, which were unfit for military service. At the Bendimahu River they were the last to make it safely across before those preparing to cross were massacred on the opposite bank.
After they had safely reached Russia, a British diplomat heard my grandfather speaking English in a town crowded with refugees. When he found out my grandfather had a degree from Edinburgh, he made sure they were allowed to get immediate transportation. So my grandparents were able to travel by train to Archangel and book passage on a steamship for New York, where my father was born on April 25, 1916. Many of those less fortunate went through the Russian Revolution and famine.
I review all this personal family history because it speaks of how God’s providence works. Despite tragedy on the scale of genocide, God was directing my father to where He wanted him. R.J. Rushdoony was not destined to be born in a remote part of the Turkish Empire. My grandfather was forced by his father’s murder to go to the city of Van. None of the Rushdoonys from the ancestral village survived the massacres. My grandfather became greatly influenced by Presbyterianism and was himself an educator, teacher, and pastor. None of these would have been possible without the American mission and its benefactors. By God’s providence, my grandparents were in the only part of the empire where flight was possible. By God’s providence, a Russian officer provided them with horses that made their escape possible before the massacring Turks caught up with stragglers. By God’s providence, a British diplomat’s intervention meant the Rushdoonys escaped a prolonged time as refugees and the Russian Revolution. By God’s providence my father was born in New York City and, when a few weeks old, traveled to Kingsburg, California, where my grandfather started a Presbyterian church. Perhaps the most providential thing of all was that my father grew up in a community of Armenians who had been persecuted for being Christians in a culture that was hostile towards and hateful of Christians. My father early realized that it was the Christian faith that held Armenians together and kept them from taking the easy route, that of converting to Islam. At a young age he found his roots were deep in Armenian history, but he also grew to love American history because of its Christian beginnings.
I would like to skip ahead now to my father’s university years. After attending junior college in Santa Monica and San Francisco, he transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. My father spoke little English when he started grammar school and said his thinking did not switch over to English until his days at the University. At the University his faith was seriously challenged for the first time. The Depression years were heady ones for Marxism. The Soviet Union was considered by many liberals a noble experiment in social reform. FDR brought socialism to prominence in American government.
Then, too, my father was reading classical literature because it was revered by many churchmen. He was reading humanistic statist paganism and looking to it for the wisdom of the ages. He later called this period one of the ugliest experiences of his life. He came to have contempt for the university as a degenerate institution. Often he took courses for what he wanted from them and then dropped them. He later said he didn’t know how he graduated with honors because he had such a rebellious attitude.
The University did stimulate his thought, however. From one professor, he was impressed by the concept of the “given,” which later found nourishment from the presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til. Another professor, in discussing Byzantine history, saw in the iconoclastic controversy’s conflict of church and state the essentially theological nature of the crisis. The iconoclastic controversy was the struggle over icons, or images in the churches. This professor noted that both the church and the state claimed to be the physical representative of the Kingdom of God. The state won that battle but framed its position in overtly theological terms. The state, my father came to see, still makes such claims but does so in purely secular utopian terms. The state has secularized the concept of the Kingdom of God on earth. My father’s idea that man’s desire “to be as gods” inevitably led to statism was emerging.
My father graduated with a bachelor’s in education in 1938 and a master’s in English literature in 1940. He attended a modernist seminary from which he received a degree in 1944. He was then ordained and went to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation at Owyhee, Nevada, where he served as a missionary pastor for eight and a half years. The next-closest church was 100 miles away, and the roads were closed in winter for months at a time. This did afford him ample time to study, and he began to write articles and book reviews.
In 1946 my father read a book by Cornelius Van Til called The New Modernism. He wrote a favorable review of it, which was published, and thereafter received a note of thanks from Dr. Van Til. Thus began his tutelage under Van Til’s writings.
Van Til wrote about the “given” but used the term “presupposition.” Modern thought is rooted in man. My father constantly went back to Genesis 3:5, the serpent’s promise to Eve. Eve was not tempted by food; she was tempted by the lust “to be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Satan’s temptation to Eve to know good and evil was not a temptation to knowledge, but to determination.
Gods do not just know or understand, they decree; they determine. Satan’s temptation was that Adam and Eve could determine as sovereign gods right and wrong. Genesis is clear that it was only after this offer that Eve looked at the fruit and decided it looked good for food.
Van Til put knowledge and meaning in God and His revelation of Himself in His Word. Van Til was a philosopher of religion. My father’s first book was a discussion of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. By What Standard was published in 1958. Beyond that book in his other writings, my father took Van Til’s presuppositionalism and used it as a basis for understanding not just thought, but action. My father based all Kingdom activity on the binding validity of God’s Word.
My father’s eschatology became settled by the mid-1950s. He was horrified at dispensational pre-millennialism but was not comfortable with the pessimism of amillennial writers either. In the late 1940s he read Hendrickson’s More Than Conquerors. He found Hendrickson’s optimism encouraging but was disappointed that he ended up amillennial. He then read Warfield and Boettner, but said he definitely considered himself a postmillennialist after reading Roderick Campbell’s Israel and the New Covenant in 1954.
He wrote a short book on Daniel and Revelation called Thy Kingdom Come in 1970 and later a booklet called God’s Plan for Victory in 1977, but it was the postmillennialism that pervaded all his writings that was most influential. In the 1960s and early 1970s Scofieldian dispensationalism was unassailable. Within less than a generation, it was on the defensive. Many, unfortunately, retreated from Scofieldian dispensationalism to a defense of a defacto two-dispensational position. This false law versus grace dichotomy is still a great impediment to be overcome, but as this happens, the theology and action of the Western church will undergo a dramatic change.
In all of my father’s writings, there is an undercurrent, an assumption of victory. He constantly said that these were exciting and wonderful times in which to be alive. He never felt defeated by the advance of evil but was encouraged that the antithesis was being revealed. A phony secularism was being revealed as humanistic anti-Christianity. The battle was becoming increasingly honest, and Christians would have to take sides. The issue was never an issue of winning or losing, for the victory was Christ’s. The only question was our faithfulness in faithless times. My father pointed to faithfulness to the Kingdom of God.
My father was Reformed in his theology early on. In 1953 he left the reservation and became a pastor in Santa Cruz, California. At the time, Santa Cruz was a retirement community. Many people there had no relatives and few roots. He did a great many hospital visitations and funerals. He once estimated he had done over 500 funerals. It was in visiting the dying that he realized the comfort that Reformed thought gave the believer. Constantly, the dying asked, “Why?” My father responded by speaking of the sovereign purposes of God. Since the alternative was chance, fate, or circumstance, he found people were comforted in hearing that God was in charge.
What churchmen debated, the dying wanted to hear. He became convinced predestination and the sovereignty of God were doctrines intended to strengthen and encourage believers. Reformed thought became for my father the basis, the presupposition, of his theology, not something he wanted to debate. Also, it was not something he wished to dwell on. He was frustrated by Calvinists who could do nothing but repeat the doctrines of grace. He wanted to use these doctrines as the basis for life and thought. He confronted humanistic naturalism’s total meaninglessness with a God of total meaning and purpose.
My father began writing about education in the 1950s. Back then, criticizing public schools was like burning the American flag. Public schools were considered a protected institution. In 1961 he published Intellectual Schizophrenia, which exposed the contradictions, the schizophrenia, behind America’s educational system. Modern man wants to reject God but wants truth, justice, and meaning. Modern man rejects its Creator but wants his creation to be one of meaning. Modern man sees himself as a product of randomness but wants to define all things in terms of his autonomous reason.
Two years later, in 1963, he published The Messianic Character of American Education, which laid out the humanistic goals of the proponents of secular education. Many Christian schools were started by people who “got it” after reading these books. Many times people have described to me how their thinking was transformed. It has often involved the statement, “I started reading your father and …” My father had a way of getting to the point, of getting to the heart of an issue, of making people see what was behind modern thought. My father had a way of opening up the implications of the faith. My father had a way of making people rethink the implications of the faith (as they understood it) and their faith (as they applied it).
During the Jimmy Carter administration, a great effort was launched at federal, state, and local levels to bring all education under government control. Many tactics were used, including truancy laws, accreditation laws, building codes, zoning laws, and more. My father traveled extensively, often on very short notice to testify as an expert witness. Strangely enough, one of the reasons he was recognized by the courts as an expert witness, in addition to his books on education, were his degrees from a state university in education.
My father asserted education based on Christianity was a matter of religious conviction required by Scripture.
The opposition to private education was formidable and did not hesitate to use every means possible to intimidate Christians. Parents and pastors were imprisoned. Children were removed to state custody. In one case a church was padlocked. Defeat would have meant the outlawing of non-statist education. In the end, these attempts failed. This and the explosion of Christian day- and homeschooling was, perhaps, the greatest victory for Christian activists in the 20th century.
These trials coincided with the deplorable economy of the Carter era and the rise of the Christian Right. When Newsweek dedicated an issue to the Religious Right after the Reagan landslide in 1980, they included a chart of “Who’s Who in the Religious Right.” Under “think tanks” only one was listed — Chalcedon.
My father started Chalcedon in 1965. He had been a researcher and writer for the William Volker Fund in 1962 and had worked on writing grants for its spin-off, the Center for American Studies. When this grant ran out, he moved our family to Los Angeles, where a group of individuals had offered to support him in the establishment of his new work.
He named the foundation Chalcedon after the ecumenical church council of AD 451. He had spoken of founding Chalcedon for several years, though his original idea of it was a college. The name Chalcedon was because my father saw that council’s work as crucial to the history of orthodoxy and especially relevant to the modern era. In the iconoclastic controversy there was no good side. The question there was, which institution represented the earthly, mediating presence of God’s Kingdom: was it the Byzantine state or church?
Both were wrong. As I said, my father came to view man’s basic sin as his quest “to be as gods, knowing [or determining] good and evil.” My father saw the claim to ultimacy, the claim to the authority that belonged to God alone, as basic to the understanding of how man’s sin worked itself out in a culture. Any institution that acquired too much power ended up presuming the authority of god.
At Chalcedon, the theological issue was the nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity. Some suggested Christ had only one nature. The council decided otherwise and said that Jesus Christ had two distinct natures in union but “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”
The issue was not one of mere academic theology. The issue involved two views of being. The Hellenic view of being was of the unity of all being, sometimes called the “great chain of being.” This was the idea that man was different from deity only by degree, not by nature. Thus, in Hellenic thought, a man could be a god; man’s potential was unlimited. In the Biblical view, man was a creature and was by nature distinct from God. Moreover, man was a sinner. Man could then only approach God by grace.
The Council of Chalcedon defined Christ as the only link between God and man. No man can ascend to God. No man or institution can mediate between God and man. The gulf between God and man is bridged only by the incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ. Chalcedon denied to any human agency the power of salvation. It denied it to the state and the church. No human being or institution could claim to link heaven and earth.
Chalcedon meant freedom from the claims of the divine state, the god-kings and the priest kings that had controlled every culture of antiquity.
Chalcedon meant that Jesus Christ was our only means to communion with God and that His Kingdom was the only transcendent one possible. Chalcedon meant freedom from all man’s claims to divinity.
Chalcedon made the advance of liberty possible in the West. Chalcedon meant limiting all human power. Chalcedon led to Magna Carta, and the English Puritan Revolution, and, ultimately, to the American Republic. Chalcedon was the theological foundation of Western liberty. To the extent we lose sight of the Chalcedonian faith, we continue to love our liberties. Humanism is the elevation of man and always leads to a tyrannical state.
Chalcedon elevated Jesus Christ and by implication, His Kingdom.
My father said he was predisposed to take the Bible seriously from his youth. When he was in seminary in the early 1940s, he brought up the issue of Biblical Law as applicable. He later said he “got clobbered” for it. The weight of the modern church was very much against Biblical Law.
In Van Til, he found a presuppositional ally. In Christian Theistic Ethics, Van Til wrote, “There is no alternative but that of theonomy or autonomy.” Van Til never developed the idea of theonomy, however. In the late 1960s my father began studies and sermons that developed into his best known work, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume I.
Biblical Law became the blueprint of Christian Reconstruction, however, not because it was the idea of Rushdoony, but because it was the authoritative will of God for man. The “original” thought of Rushdoony was to take God seriously, to take God literally, at His Word. My father called us back to that standard for thought and action.
As Christians became disillusioned with what they saw in society and as they sought to resist humanism, the radical dispensationalism had to be abandoned.
Christians began quoting the Old Testament; they had to. Christians began to look for what the Bible said about abortion, education, the authority of the family, and self-government under God, and my father helped point the way back to Scripture, not just as inspiration, but as the law-word of God. In fact, the expression “law-word” is important to understanding my father. He repeatedly said God always speaks authoritatively, that God only speaks authoritatively.
Presuppositional thinking, when combined with the proclamation of Biblical Law as the binding revelation of a sovereign God, was a confrontational pose toward the modern church. The church was confronted with its retreatism, its subjective Pietism, and its humanistic thought. The church was confronted with its isolation from or participation in the decay of our culture. The church was called to be salt. Salt was a preservative, an agent that fought decay. By not proclaiming God’s whole law-word, the church was failing in its role of preserving the world from its natural tendency to decay.
Finally, my father’s writings sounded a recurring cord of anti-statism. Humanism is the elevation of man to supremacy. The highest collective voice of man is always some form of the state, so statism has been the tendency of all human history.
This tendency we must see in American history. As 21st century Americans, we are among the most taxed, regulated, and controlled people of history.
My father called himself a Christian libertarian because he believed a godly society would be a free society with a very limited state.
The answer to statism, however, is not in revolution but regeneration. Our primary goal is not the control of statist means to be used for godly purposes, but rather an allegiance above the political. We are first of all citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are called to seek first this Kingdom and God’s righteousness. This is why we build. We build because our culture will not stand the judgment of God. We rebuild our own lives, our families, our churches, our callings, our voluntary associations, and we extend outward from there. We do not build because we have a master plan we have designed; we build because our Master has a plan He has revealed — faithfulness. If we are faithful to the victorious Christ, we shall share in His victory.
Chalcedon is an educational organization. On this, the 40th anniversary of Chalcedon’s founding, I do not wish to imply that the Kingdom of God or its advance is dependent on the work of R.J. Rushdoony or this foundation. I only wish to acknowledge the providence of God in bringing my father to the time and place in history He did. I believe my father was used by God and that his body of work will be used still more in the years ahead. I believe my father was a faithful servant of God, and it is my prayer that Chalcedon will continue to be likewise faithful in its service to the Kingdom.
When my father spoke of his Armenian heritage, some thought he spoke out of nationalistic pride. They misunderstood him. In fact, he always kept a distance from groups dedicated to the Armenian Diaspora. His was a much broader message. He did see, however, in his Armenian forebears what it meant to stand for the faith. A million and a half of that generation died rather than renounce their faith. The church my grandfather founded the year my father was born was called the Armenian Martyrs Presbyterian Church. In a different time, and in a far different way, my father took a stand for the faith.
His stand has strengthened many others to also stand.
Each of you also represents a history of God’s providence, one that has brought you to where you are today. You and I have our distinct roles in God’s Kingdom. It may not be to write tomes. But it may be to act in terms of some already written.
Our Lord compared His Kingdom to yeast, which does its work unnoticed until suddenly the result is apparent. He also compared it to a mustard seed that is tiny and seemingly insignificant until the appointed time when it grows into a mighty plant. Let us not be discouraged. Our Lord also compared His Kingdom to a wheat field in which there would be weeds. At times, it seems as if the weeds might choke out the wheat, but these will be dealt with in due time.
You and I are citizens of the Kingdom of God, which shall grow to maturity.
God does not ask us to plan His Kingdom or to usher it in. He only gives us specific duties in it. The question we must ask of ourselves is whether we are faithful citizens or treasonous citizens.
Let us therefore labor in the certainty of Christ’s victory and the strength of His Holy Spirit that we might receive that most blessed call, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:21, 23).
Rev. Mark R. Rushdoony is president of Chalcedon and Ross House Books. He is also editor-in-chief of Faith for All of Life and Chalcedon’s other publications.
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