Just a straight cut-in-paste of McVicar on Rushdoony: A Review Article, by Gary North
Remnant Review, Vol. 47
A review of Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
This essay is more than a book review. A book review summarizes a book. It ought to identify the book’s contribution to a field, whether academic, religious, political, or whatever. It applies an evaluative standard to the book: reliability of evidence, and cogency of arguments. It may discuss the literary quality of the book: clarity and persuasiveness.
My review goes beyond this. In part, this is because the book discusses me. But, more important, it deals with things not seen. Every book must leave out lots of things. As long as that which is left out is tangential to the book’s thesis, there is no major loss for the reader. But this is not the case when the things left out throw light on a major aspect of the book’s central ideas.1. MCVICAR’S HAT TRICK
McVicar is a historian. He achieved what every doctoral candidate dreams of. He selected a dissertation topic that was narrow enough to have been neglected for decades by other historians, yet also of such general interest that a major university press decided to publish it. This is an academic hat trick. It rarely happens.
There is a third component of his hat trick. The book is both seminal and definitive. This is almost impossible to achieve. This means that the author is the first person to deal with an important topic in such a way that all further discussions in print of the topic must begin with a consideration of his book. The book is sufficiently comprehensive so that someone writing on the same topic will find it difficult to make a contribution that is equally seminal. The author of the second book must position himself as follows: “Me, too, but. . . .” The seminal book covers the crucial bases adequately, so that any future author will either have to come up with a unique thesis that can be supported by the evidence, or else he must discover a treasure trove of primary source documents that were unknown to the original author. I don’t think either of these is a possibility in this case.
Frankly, I don’t see why any other historian would go to the trouble of doing a comparable amount of research on this topic without an academic angle so powerful that a major university press would be willing to publish his book.
So, McVicar has gained an operational monopoly with his book. He was able to convert that monopoly into monopolistic returns. He secured an assistant professorship at Florida State University. He got an appointment to teach religion. That is also something of an academic hat trick. His academic success is based on a detailed study of the Christian scholar who, more than any other Christian scholar in American history, was opposed to tax-funded education.
You might guess that he got his appointment because the book is a hatchet job on that scholar. That would be incorrect. The book is judicious in its use of negative rhetoric. It is comprehensively researched. It is based on access to the letters and diaries of Rushdoony.
I found the book to be highly informative. Because of his access to Rushdoony’s papers, he was able to include information that I had never heard of. Also, because he sometimes quotes from letters that I wrote to Rushdoony, they refreshed my memory. I had completely forgotten about some of them.
He first contacted me in 2007 for background on the William Volker Fund/Center For American Studies. Rushdoony was on the payroll for a little under two years, 1962–63, and he was paid a two-year severance in late 1963 for two more years. I was a summer intern in 1963.
I filled in some historical gaps. He replied: “You’ve given me more info in a short note than anyone else has in reams of correspondence.”2. ASSESSING RUSHDOONY’S LEGACY
The author has done a yeoman’s task in making plausible sense out of Rushdoony’s career and his likely legacy.
Every historian faces a series of problems. First, he has to have evidence for his assessments, but evidence is always in limited supply. Second, he must have access to written documents. Third, he may have access to personal recollections by participants if the events are relatively recent. Fourth, there are costs associated with travel.
Graduate students are always severely limited with respect to money and time. There is a deadline for the dissertation. There are tuition fees. Also, they are not earning a living while they are doing their research.
Every historian faces a fifth problem: discovering historical connections that are not readily visible. This is the historian’s problem of “connecting the dots.” The dots don’t always leave documents. How does he connect them, assuming that he detects them? No historian has exhaustive knowledge of the past, and no one is able to impute meaning to facts on his own authority.
Sixth, there is the problem of the dots that are not there. They are merely imagined dots. Imagination is an inescapable component of every discipline. It is the art that guides the science. But historical imagination can run far ahead of the available documentation. This can lead to wasted time and even career disasters.
Seventh, there is the question of epistemology. Except for philosophy majors, courses in epistemology are nonexistent. At best, there are courses in a discipline’s methodology, which are universally detested by students. History majors struggle through a course on historiography.
As far as I can determine, there has only been one teacher who had demand for a course on historiography: William Marina. That was because he packaged it effectively: “The Kennedy Assassination.” He had another advantage. He was the only trained historian who was in Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was shot. His course always filled with 150 students, and there was always a waiting list.
As a trained historian, and as a disciple of Cornelius Van Til, I proclaim this epistemological principle for historiography: apart from a sovereign God who is omniscient, who has unchangeable standards of interpretation, and who imputes meaning to every jot and tittle of history, the art of historiography would be impossible.
If I were not in the process of beginning my final contribution to international education, which will fill the next four years of my life, I would write a book on the doctrine of God’s imputation as it applies to soteriology (salvation), economic theory, and historiography.
Let me illustrate all this with a relevant example. If you could get records of the sales of Rushdoony’s major work, Volume 1 of The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973), you would find that it did not sell that many copies. It went into several editions, but these were small print runs of probably 3,000 copies each. I doubt that the book has sold 30,000 copies. Yet it has had impact in the evangelical world, as McVicar demonstrates. That is to say, bits and pieces of its outlook have had widespread influence.
Can any historian trace the impact of such a book? I doubt it. He has to guess. He cannot simply follow the footnotes to it in other men’s books. First, most pastors do not write. Second, as McVicar shows in his book, pastors and Protestant leaders who were drinking at Rushdoony’s well would not admit it. McVicar has to argue that The Institutes had influence, yet he has trouble tracing it. I am in full agreement with his thesis. I also sympathize with him for his dilemma. He had to connect dots that a lot of evangelical leaders actively concealed or even erased.
What I did not know until I read the extracts from Rushdoony’s diary is this: he actively resented the fact that so many people used his ideas but refused to cite him as the source. That must have been a burden.
This has never been a burden for me. Almost half a century ago, Leonard E. Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), told me something that I have never forgotten. “When somebody enthusiastically quotes an idea that you came up with, but he has no idea regarding the original source of this idea, you have been successful.” Conclusion: when an idea becomes widespread in any community or society, whoever came up with the idea has had a major triumph. That should be a sufficient psychological reward.
McVicar concluded that Rushdoony’s main influence has been twofold. First, there is his fusion of Van Til’s presuppositional epistemology with Old Testament law and postmillennial eschatology, neither of which was supported by Van Til. This produced the concept of Christian Reconstruction.
Second, there is his defense of private Christian education as a morally mandatory alternative to tax-funded secular education. Rushdoony based this educational viewpoint on a Vantilian concept: the impossibility of religious neutrality. Secular education is deeply religious education, and it must be opposed and avoided by Christians. Van Til had also taught this from the beginning of his career. He wrote this in a book review in the Princeton Theological Review January 1929, the year of his exodus from Princeton.
Most modern educators are frankly humanistic. Only they think, or profess to think, that humanism and Christianity are identical. And exactly there lies the mistake. Christian pedagogy has always maintained as its starting-point the creation of man in the image of God, and its goal is not man for the sake of man, but man for the sake of God. Humanism goes back to Greece; barring exceptions, Athens, not Calvary, controls the educational policy of the present day.
Education is perhaps the deadliest weapon employed in the struggle between Christianity and humanism. Many Christians seem not to be aware of this fact; at least many of them apparently think it possible that the school should be neutral territory, neither definitely Christian nor distinctly anti-Christian. A change of opinion on this subject, has, Dr. Bavinck believes, come about in the last few years. Many Christians are beginning to realize that we must have Christian education from the grade-school to the university if we would truly employ all the means given us for the propagation and defense of the faith.
Van Til continued to defend this outlook in essays and lectures in the 1950’s and 1960’s. See the collections: Essays on Christian Education (P&R, 1971) and Foundations of Christian Education (P&R, 1990).
In both of these legacies, Van Til’s influence was crucial in Rushdoony’s thinking. It was equally crucial in the thinking of the men Rushdoony attracted. They came in the way that Albert J. Nock described in his 1936 essay, “Isaiah’s Job.” Members of the Remnant are attracted to the vision articulated by the prophet.
The problem comes when the prophet decides that he needs to get his message out as a program of social and political reform. Nock recommended against this. So did Leonard E. Read. But this is not how prophets operated in the Old Testament. It is not how the disciples operated in the early years of the church. It is not how the church has operated ever since. “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:18-20). The Great Commission is comprehensive. This was Rushdoony’s view. It is best articulated in Ken Gentry’s book, The Greatness of the Great Commission (1990).
If the prophet is not a good manager of men, his mission will stall. The disciples will depart.
There are no prophets today. Prophecy ended in A.D. 70. But there are prophetic figures who announce new ways to live and build for the future. They gain followings for a time. Rushdoony was such a figure. I was his first full-time disciple. As I told Sara Diamond in a phone interview over three decades ago: “Rushdoony is the Marx of this movement. I’m trying very hard to be the Engels.” She cited this in her book, Spiritual Warfare (1990), p. 135. She was a sociologist. I figured she would resonate to this comparison. She did.
McVicar speaks of his work ethic. That was central to his life. It began as a child, when he would read books with a flashlight after he was sent to bed. From college on, he read at least one book every other day. He did this until old age and poor health stopped him. He used to report on his output at the end of the year, so that his supporters could recognize that they were getting their money’s worth. I have reproduced two of these annual lists here. This output does not seem possible. The only scholar I have ever heard of whose output was greater was Jacob Neusner, who wrote a book every three weeks for 40 years. But he did not have the same breadth of learning that Rushdoony did. His books were focused on aspects of Judaism.3. GAPS
No monograph can cover everything. It isn’t intended to cover everything. But the author should be able to recognize the highlights. What is a highlight? A highlight is something that, if ignored or downplayed, leaves the story is incomplete. This doesn’t mean that the story loses its value. It means that the story could have been made far more valuable if the storyteller had not ignored the highlight.
McVicar was in a gold mine. He neglected to go down certain shafts in which diamonds were embedded in the walls.
McVicar would have strengthened his case considerably if he had perceived just how radical Rushdoony’s contribution was.
A. SIX-DAY CREATIONISM
In 1960, there was no creation science movement. Rushdoony was crucial in creating it.
He argued that God sovereignly created the world out of nothing in six days. In the 1950’s, this was a radical doctrine in evangelicalism. The only academic scientist who publicly argued for the six-day creation in 1950 was Henry Morris, who had his degree in engineering. Moody Press had published Morris’ book, The Bible and Modern Science, in 1951. Morris was almost alone in his defense of the doctrine.
As Morris wrote in his History of Modern Creationism (1984), Moody Press in 1960 had refused to publish The Genesis Flood, the jointly authored book by Morris and theology professor John Whitcomb. The reason? Moody Press said that it was too critical of alternative views of the creation. Morris could not find a publisher for the book.
Moody Press had sent the manuscript to Rushdoony for review. The fact that Rushdoony was considered a reliable reviewer by Moody Press testifies to his influence. He was highly enthusiastic about the manuscript. He intervened with his own publisher, Hays Craig, to publish the book. It was the best decision financially that Craig ever made. The book became the first best-selling book that Craig ever published through Presbyterian and Reformed (today: P&R), the family publishing business. The six-day creation movement to this extent is the result of Rushdoony’s intervention.
The entire Christian world had surrendered to the doctrine of uniformitarianism by the mid-19th century. The major scholars at Princeton Seminary accepted Charles Lyell’s concept of uniformitarian change: “today’s perceived rates of geological change have always existed.” Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–33) converted Darwin during the famous voyage of the Beagle. The doctrine of uniformitarian geological change, if true, means that the world is very old. This insight goes back to James Hutton in the late 18th century. This assumption provided the crucial break of the modern world against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The accounts of the six-day creation and the flood become untenable for a uniformitarian.
Rushdoony argued for six-day creationism as important for any successful defense of biblical morals. About a year before he began to write his first sermon on biblical law, he wrote the following. It appears in his 1967 book, The Mythology of Science.
A fourth way in which evolutionary thinking has affected the minds of men is in the area of morality. Biblical morality declares the sovereign authority of God and establishes His clear-cut commandments for men. Morality thus has reality; it is grounded in ultimate reality; it rests on the truths of God’s word and has the authority of God’s judgment behind it. The theory of evolution has no moral absolutes. Morality like man is a product of evolution; it represents, not ultimate and absolute truth, but social mores and customs. The new morality is the logical result of evolutionary theory. It simply wipes out all moral standards (p. 55).
This appears in Chapter VI, “The Necessity for Creationism.”
B. CREATIONISM AND ETHICS
Rushdoony understood that the Bible’s account of the creation week is inescapably connected to the doctrine of God’s providence. The sovereignty of God in creating the universe is manifested in His subsequent control over the entire creation.
This raises a crucial metaphysical question. It is also an ethical question in Christian theology. “How does God preserve His creation?” Answer: by means of His law. God’s comprehensive law-order is built into the creation. But, as Van Til had argued from the beginning, fallen men’s understanding of God’s law is corrupt. Van Til referred to this perverse understanding as “the noetic effect of sin.” So, he argued, ethics cannot rest on natural law theory. Rushdoony accepted this insight, beginning no later than 1946, when he read Van Til’s first book, The New Modernism (1946). McVicar discussed the seemingly random event that led to Rushdoony’s discovery of the book (p. 34).
Van Til was not a six-day creationist. Nobody at Westminster Seminary or any other seminary was a six-day creationist. Rushdoony was the first person to put together the two concepts: Van Til’s break with natural law theory and the necessity of the six-day creation. These two principles governed his entire worldview. McVicar did not recognize this. It is a major omission in his book.
On page 4 of the Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony wrote this:
Law is in every culture religious in origin. Because law governs man in society, because it establishes and declares the meaning of justice and righteousness, law is inescapably religious, in that it establishes in practical fashion the ultimate concerns of a culture. Accordingly, a fundamental and necessary premise in any and every study of the law must be, first, our recognition of this religious nature of law.
Second, it must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the God of that society. If law has its source in man’s reason, then reason is the God of that society. If the source is an oligarchy, or in a court, cynic, or ruler, then that source is the God of that system. Thus, in Greek culture law was essentially a religiously humanistic concept.
A decade earlier, Rushdoony’s friend, Rev. T. Robert Ingram, had written this in his little book, The World Under God’s Law (1962): “Clearly the law giver in any case is the highest authority for any people. The origin of its law is its god” (p. 3). This realization was why Rushdoony was adamant regarding the doctrine of the six-day creation. To deny this doctrine is to deny at least three things: the historical trustworthiness of God’s written word, His providential control over history, and the possibility of the establishment of a biblical social order.
C. BIBLICAL CASUISTRY
Casuistry is the judicial art of connecting permanent ethical laws with specific cases. It is the subtle art of judicial imputation. It connects unchanging biblical ethics with the changing realm of history. Without casuistry, law is separated from historical change, meaning men’s decisions. Even if there are permanent ethical laws, men cannot recognize them, understand them, and interpret them in specific cases. This would lead to antinomianism.
The art of casuistry was central to Christian ethics in the West until the late 17th century. Before this, Protestants and Catholics were aware of the fact that casuistry is a mandatory discipline of Christian scholarship. It is mandatory because it is foundational to the creation of a civilization. There is no society that does not operate in terms of casuistry.
After 1700, Protestant casuistry simply disappeared. The last major work of Protestant casuistry was written by Richard Baxter, an independent Puritan, A Christian Directory. This massive work was divided in four sections: personal ethics, family ethics, church ethics, and political ethics. It was published in 1673. The first volume of the Institutes was published in 1973. Thus, Protestant casuistry had disappeared as a discipline and therefore as the basis of Christian ethics for three centuries.
Kenneth Kirk, who taught at Oxford and who was Bishop of Oxford from 1937 to 1954, attempted to revive the ideal of casuistry. But he never wrote a detailed, comprehensive study along the lines of A Christian Directory. He did not go to biblical law for insight. He never produced a system of interpretation linking the Bible and contemporary civil law.
Rushdoony’s defense of biblical law was not new. It was an extension of the theology of one branch of the Puritan movement. The first generation of Puritan leaders in Massachusetts, 1630–60, was officially committed to a defense of biblical law in civil laws. The famous Massachusetts Body of Liberties, published in 1641, cited the Old Testament repeatedly in its justifications of specific civil laws for the colony. This document served as the constitution for the colony.
McVicar did not discuss this development. This is understandable. He is not a specialist in New England Puritanism. But he should have made clear the continuity theologically between Rushdoony and the New England Puritans. Rushdoony invoked the Puritan judicial legacy in his 1964 book, This Independent Republic.
To a godly man, law is not an enemy but his mainstay. Hence, the religious delight these men felt in law, and, supremely, in God’s law. The study of biblical doctrine was thus an exercise in liberty, so that John Cotton could say, “I love to sweeten my mouth with a piece of Calvin, before I go to sleep.” The severe Puritan laws, therefore, represented the social expression of love for men. . . . Liberty was law, and both concepts were biblical, not rationalistic (p. 102).
The holy Commonwealth was a theocracy in that it rested on the sovereignty of God in his kingship. With respect to the human order, it was a Commonwealth. There was no rule of the state by the church or vice a versa (p. 104).
Chapter 12 was a discussion of the political theology of the New England Puritan minister, John Cotton.
Thus Christian civil government for Cotton meant, among other things, three things certainly. First, it meant limited power, second, limited liberty; third, no universality, and no intervention by the civil government into other spheres. By way of contrast, the modern messianic state aims at a self-contradiction. First, it grasps at unlimited power; second, it promises unlimited liberty, a manifest of certainty. Third, it claims increasingly a universality of jurisdiction, and the United Nations is the enemy of this tendency (p. 154).
He began to develop these theories in detail, beginning in a series of sermons in 1968. These were compiled into one book, The Institutes of Biblical Law, in 1973.
That book was revolutionary. But, as is the case in so many revolutions, it was a development of an earlier tradition that was sidetracked and disappeared. That was the tradition of the New England Puritans of the first generation. That tradition began to erode after 1660 with the restoration of King Charles II, and after 1700, it disappeared. Rushdoony was making up for 300 years of neglect.
McVicar did not discuss this. It weakened his book because it ignored the neglected element in the development of both Christian theology and social theory. Christian social theory was overwhelmed by the Enlightenment that began publicly with the restoration of Charles II. If there is one word that describes it, it is this: Newtonianism. The second-generation Puritan, Cotton Mather, was instrumental in spreading the gospel of Newtonianism in the American colonies. His book, The Christian Philosopher (1721), was a defense of the worldview of this closet Unitarian, who was also a secret adept of alchemy.
When Newtonianism was replaced by Darwinism after 1880, this led to a self-conscious rejection of the Bible as the basis of the social order. But the mechanistic philosophy of Newton was no less a threat to the Bible’s cosmic personalism, which was announced in Genesis 1.
D. CORNELIUS VAN TIL’S RADICAL APOLOGETICS
The centrality of the thinking of Cornelius Van Til was acknowledged by McVicar. Rushdoony’s first book was a study of Van Til’s philosophy: By What Standard? (1959). He continued to promote Van Til’s philosophy in his little book, which never gained much attention, Van Til (1960). McVicar mentioned this book.
What McVicar missed has been missed by most people who have read Rushdoony’s books. Van Til was the real revolutionary, not Rushdoony.
If we look at Rushdoony’s major theological distinctives, we can find traces of these distinctives in church history. He was an outspoken Calvinist. There have been lots of these. He defended biblical law. So did the first generation of New England Puritans. He was a postmillennialist. So was the first generation of New England Puritans. So was Jonathan Edwards. So were prominent 19th-century Presbyterian theologians. Rushdoony’s fusion of postmillennialism and biblical law was unique in the 20th century, but it was an extension of the vision of New England Puritanism up until the restoration of Charles II.
What is unique about Christian Reconstruction is its presuppositional apologetic method. The source of this was exclusively one man: Van Til. Van Til self-consciously rejected all of Greek philosophy. He rejected Roman Catholicism’s fusion of biblical revelation and Aristotelianism. In doing so, he threw out Lutheranism’s social theory and its dualistic defense of the faith. He rejected all forms of evidentialism. He rejected what he called brute factuality. All facts are interpreted. He rejected all forms of Kantianism. He made no peace treaty or even a cease fire with any secular philosopher. He thereby self-consciously broke with the entire history of Christian apologetics. Christian apologetics had always been based on the importation of Greek philosophical categories up until Kant. Van Til rejected all such compromises.
McVicar had some sense of the fact that Van Til was a maverick, but he was more than a maverick. He was a radical. There had never been anyone like him in church history.
Rushdoony in 1946 hitched his epistemological and ethical wagon to Van Til’s shooting star. He never let loose of that star. It pulled him into self-conscious conflict with all of modern social thought and theology. Van Til was at war with the history of Christian philosophy, the history of humanistic philosophy, and most of his peers. We see this in the 1971 book edited by one of his former students, E. H. Geehan: Jerusalem and Athens. Geehan invited two dozen contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians to comment on Van Til’s apologetics. Most of the contributors were hostile. Van Til had an opportunity to respond to all of them. Geehan spent his teaching career at West Point. He made no other contributions to theology. I am glad he made this one. It allowed Van Til to respond to his critics.
Rushdoony wrote a favorable article on the one and the many problem, also known as the unity and diversity problem. This dualism is basic to every humanistic philosophy of history. Van Til argued that the resolution of this problem is found in the doctrine of the Trinity. Van Til’s response to Rushdoony was brief. It ended with this: “Your continued interest in all my works is always encouraging.” Van Til never offered Rushdoony any other public encouragement.
When Rushdoony became a geographically distant disciple of Van Til in 1946, he cut all ties with the history of Christian philosophy. Van Til was a loner. I would say in the history of Christian philosophy, he was the greatest loner. He stood alone against the entire tradition.
Van Til never offered any discussion of the content of Christian ethics. He wrote a syllabus on ethics. But he never applied his general philosophy of Christian ethics to the world. He never applied biblical law or biblical philosophy to specific social, political, or cultural issues. He was like a specialist in demolition. As I have said before, he was like a man who blew up all of the dikes of the Netherlands, but, as the water roared in, he refused to offer any blueprints for dikes or techniques of dike construction. His defense of Christian ethics was negative. With respect to ethical content, he refused to accept this truth: “You can’t beat something with nothing.” It took Rushdoony from 1946 until 1968 to figure out that he needed to start designing dikes. His solution was biblical law. He worked on this blueprint design project from 1968 until the publication of The Institutes in 1973.
Rushdoony spent the remainder of his career in various attempts to figure out ways to get the dikes constructed. So did I. So did Bahnsen. So did everyone connected with Christian Reconstruction. The modern evangelical churches have no intention of accepting this added responsibility. This has been the problem ever since Rushdoony was handed a copy of The New Modernism in 1946.
Van Til did not like Christian Reconstruction. He was devoutly amillennial. He did like Bahnsen’s apologetics. He remained silent on Bahnsen’s book on theonomy.
Van Til had few disciples. The Christian Reconstructionists have carried his water ever since 1973. I edited a Festschrift for him: Foundations of Christian Scholarship (1976). He never responded. Van Til always had this problem. He knew that he had a lot of enemies, and he did not trust anybody who claimed to be a disciple.
We do not have any control over who inherits our legacies. The Christian Reconstructionists inherited Van Til’s, whether he liked it or not. But, in inheriting it, they isolated themselves from the whole history of Christian philosophy.
McVicar did not make this clear. He did not present Rushdoony’s radicalism as an inescapable result of Van Til’s radicalism. Nobody outside of a very limited group of Calvinistic philosophers has paid attention to Van Til. The main exception was Karl Barth, who was the target of Van Til’s book, The New Modernism, and, a quarter century later, Christianity and Barthianism (1962), which few people ever read. Rushdoony had a far larger audience of both followers and critics than Van Til ever had. The critics saw Rushdoony as a radical. He was a radical. But he had been radicalized by Van Til in 1946.
E. RUSHDOONY’S SECOND MASTERPIECE
Humanists pay attention to politics. Politics is their religion. This has been true ever since Athenian culture, which lasted only about 75 years. But it was Van Til who had been the great enemy of the Greeks. Rushdoony developed this antipathy to the ancient world’s political religions in the first half of his book, The One and the Many (1971).
Humanists want control of education. Rushdoony, following Van Til, opposed this. He hated the modern state because of its assertion of sovereignty over education.
McVicar came up with a marvelous allegory for Rushdoony’s career: Captain Ahab vs. Moby Dick.
The modern state was Rushdoony’s white whale. It haunted his ministry and prodded him toward activism. His antistatist theology will remain his major contribution to American culture, especially in the form of his assault on state-funded education. His work as an expert witness and key organizer of the legal infrastructure behind the conservative evangelical wing of the homeschooling movement will linger for decades. While it is certainly true that most conservative homeschoolers are not Reconstructionists, it is also true that many of the key intellectual and legal leaders in the movement have some connection to Rushdoony’s movement. Many of these leaders took up Rushdoony’s concept of antistatist dominion families and develop them into a set of ideas and practices that have grown to dominate some corners of the homeschooling movement (p. 223).
McVicar devoted considerable space in his book to a discussion of how important Rushdoony was as a defense witness in trials of homeschoolers. Rushdoony created havoc for the prosecution. He could handle the states’ prosecuting attorneys without much trouble. This was not normal.
He testified in at least 23 different cases. As a publisher, I would recommend that somebody go to the trouble of compiling these cases into a public domain website. This would be important for historical reasons, and it would also be a treasure trove for any lawyer who wants to have evidence of exactly how a successful witness handled himself on the witness stand.
Incredibly, McVicar refused to comment on Rushdoony’s other masterpiece: The Messianic Character of American Education. It was published in late 1963. Nothing like it had ever been published before him, and nothing like it has ever been published since. The book surveys the educational philosophy of two dozen major pioneers in tax-funded education. It begins with Horace Mann in Massachusetts in the late 1830s. It ends with Theodore Brameld in the 1950’s. Here was the one case in Rushdoony’s career where he selected a book title that was ideal for marketing. The title told all in five words. American public education has been messianic from the beginning. It is a religion.
Van Til had argued this case decades earlier, but no one had ever proven it from the historical record. Rushdoony did. No one needs to prove it again. It is one of those books that is both seminal and definitive. His mastery of the primary sources was impressive. He had received his masters degree in education at Berkeley in 1940. He had been collecting books and journals on education ever since. He also had Stanford University’s library nearby if he needed it, but he probably did not need it.
McVicar showed that the most powerful argument that Rushdoony marshaled against the public schools is this: the public schools are based on a deeply religious philosophy. They are not neutral. Again, this is straight Van Til. But Van Til did not have a master’s degree in education. He had not devoted four decades to studying the primary source documents of American educational philosophy. There was no one else in America who could have filled Rushdoony’s shoes in the mid-1980’s. There was no one else with a comparable background and knowledge to put on the witness stand to make the case that American parents had a right, under the First Amendment, to religious freedom. This meant that they had a right to educate their children according to their religious presuppositions. That argument won in courtrooms across America in favor of the legalization of homeschools. What had not been true in 1980 became true by 1990.
His most important victory was the Leeper case in Texas in 1987. What he did to the state’s attorney is representative of what he did to all 23 of them. The transcript is posted here. The case went to the state’s supreme court. The school district lost. It cost the school district’s insurance company $360,000 to pay the defendants’ attorney fees and damages. That sent a message to all the other districts: “Leave these people alone.”
It is clear that McVicar never read Messianic Character. Yet this was the second-most important academic book that Rushdoony wrote. It was a monograph that became the confessional foundation of the homeschooling legal revolution in the United States. It established the fact that American public education has always had a religious agenda.
On page 166, McVicar referred to The Messianic Nature of American Education. He got the title correct on page 168. But he did not understand the book or its importance in the homeschooling battles. It is a formidable book. The masses of footnotes and the detailed attention to the arguments of the educators would put off almost anybody who is not committed to a graduate-school level understanding of the history of American educational philosophy. McVicar really did miss the boat when he wrote the following:
But to further argue that state education is essentially humanist because of its meandering, indirect dissent from the philosophy of John Dewey requires a similarly existentialist view of ideas and their transmission across time and through complex bureaucratic institutions. Rushdoony’s ability to flatten these incredibly complex institutional and religious transformations into intelligible and reasonable witness-stand soundbites indicates presuppositionalism’s remarkable power to simplify and clarify (p. 170).
Humanist education in America did not start with John Dewey. It started with Horace Mann, six decades earlier. Rushdoony’s chapter on Dewey is Chapter 15.
Mann was a Unitarian. Rushdoony wrote:
Mann was a faithful church-goer and a man who spoke religiously of education. His sympathy and theology were Unitarian, but to understand this fact it is necessary to recognize that in the early 19th century Unitarianism had not yet, as it was to do subsequently, separated itself from Christianity. Rather, it presented itself as the true version of Christianity and the fulfillment of Protestantism. It was not yet sufficiently divergent from other groups to be beyond the pale, and Mann’s election to the presidency of Antioch College in the early years is not too surprising. That college, begun as a denominational school of the Christian church, could call a known Unitarian without any surprise on either side (p. 19).
Rushdoony was making the case against Unitarianism, which had morphed into humanism by 1950. From the beginning of his writing career, the Unitarians were his enemy. He favored the holy commonwealth ideal of the Puritans. That ideal was subverted by the Unitarians. He wrote in This Independent Republic: “In this form, the holy commonwealth idea remained central to American life. Unitarianism itself represented a humanistic variation of this faith, with the state schools as the new church and partner to the state” (p. 107). “The American sense of destiny, from colonial times to well into the 19th century, was a Christian sense of mission and calling. Statist education, after Horace Mann, steadily eroded this faith” (p. 116).
A year later, in The Nature of the American System, he devoted chapter VI to a detailed attack on Unitarianism and its implications: “The Religion of Humanity.” He spoke of the positivism of the European social revolutionary, Auguste Comte.
The basic impetus was in origin Unitarian, with European influences being channeled through that movement and its associated forces. It outgrew Unitarian boundaries and saw itself as “free thought.” . . . All this was done with a humorless zeal, a belief in man’s speedy perfectibility, as well as with fervent self-righteousness. . . . The characteristics commonly ascribed to Puritanism were best descriptive of the Unitarians (pp. 84–85).
He then spent several pages attacking Octavius Brooks Frothingham, author of The Religion of Humanity (1873). Frothingham had begun as a Unitarian. He later became a transcendentalist, then a free thinker, and then a Unitarian.
Not only does Frothingham hold to a unitary and organic conception of man in society, but he also ascribes to that unitary aspect, rather than to the erring individuals, perfection and sinlessness. The state which thus embodies this religion of humanity is deified and placed beyond all criticism and law. It is by definition both the perfect order and the Christ or savior of man. The individual must therefore see all error in himself and not in the state. The sickness is in the individual if he dissents from the state, a sign of mental sickness, because the state is itself health when the state identifies itself with the religion of humanity. Salvation is social, in, through, and by the state (p. 87).
Rushdoony’s hostility to tax-funded education had been basic to his critique of humanism from at least 1946. His short book, Intellectual Schizophrenia, a critique of public education, was published in 1961. It outlined his reasons for opposing tax-funded education: the myth of neutrality. But that was not his magnum opus. It was more like a preliminary shot fired across the bow of tax-funded education. The cannon was The Messianic Character.
If you ever read this book, you will gain some understanding of the sophistication of his analytic skills and his immense knowledge of the primary sources. This is a classic model of what a monograph should be. It was governed by a primary theme: the title of the book. Modern humanistic education is messianic. Its goal is the salvation of individuals and society by means of state control over education.
It took another two decades for him to have the opportunities to testify in court against his ancient enemy. The magnitude of what his testimony accomplished deserves consideration. McVicar gave him credit for this, but he did not grasp the magnitude of the intellectual preparation that Rushdoony devoted to this task.
I offer this incident as a way of conveying the extent of Rushdoony’s success. Terry McAuliffe was a major fundraiser for the Democratic Party and for the Clintons. He later became governor of Virginia. His brother Joseph was a Rushdoony disciple. He may no longer be, but he was at the turn of the century. When the McAuliffes’ father died in 2000, the Clintons attended the funeral. Joseph told me the following story. Hillary got into a brief discussion with him. She asked him what he was doing these days. He mentioned that he was working with Rushdoony. She responded: “Isn’t he the specialist in the history of American education?” She was better informed than most people think.
F. A DOZEN YEARS OF DEMOLITION TACTICS
From the publication of Intellectual Schizophrenia in 1961 until the publication of The Institutes in 1973, Rushdoony spent his time attacking humanism across the boards. He focused on education, but he always returned to politics. McVicar was correct: that was his great white whale.
He began writing The Institutes in 1968. He began giving sermons on the topics that became chapters.
He wrote his sermons in longhand with a steel pen. It was not a fountain pen. Just as he did from grade school, he would dip the pen into a bottle of ink, and continue writing. McVicar mentioned this briefly. For extended quotations, he would insert a page into the ancient typewriter that his father had given him when he went off to college in the late 1930’s. It was already an ancient typewriter.
He would read his sermons, but people could follow them. The sermons did not sound like term papers. The sermons were engaging. People did not go to sleep during them. He could convey the information verbally, yet when you read them as chapters in The Institutes, you get the impression that they were a series of detailed academic papers. I have never encountered any preacher who had the ability to read what appear to be academic papers, but which are first and foremost sermons. He would then go home, add footnotes, and give them to his wife. She typed them for submission to Presbyterian and Reformed as chapters. She used an IBM electric typewriter.
Anyone can assess the magnitude of his homiletic achievement. A disciple has collected thousands of his sermons, organized them into topics, and has converted them into searchable web pages. They are on this site: Pocket College. Here is its offer: 19 Subjects, 54 Text Books, 135 Courses, 2,374 Lessons, 10 million words. There is nothing else like this collection of sermons. It is offered free of charge.
He appeared almost out of nowhere with his two books on Van Til (1959 and 1960). Then he extended his critique to public education in two volumes (1961, 1963). Then he offered two books about the Christian roots of American history and the battle between Christianity and Unitarianism (1964 and 1965). Next was his 60-page monograph, Freud (1965). Almost nobody read it at the time. This was a time in which hardly any scholar criticized Freud in print. Rushdoony demolished him. Then in rapid succession came The Mythology of Science (1967), The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (1968), The Myth of Overpopulation (1969), The Biblical Philosophy of History (1969), Politics of Guilt and Pity (1970), The One and the Many (1971), and Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation (1971). There was a collection of articles he wrote for The California Farmer: Bread Upon the Waters (1969). There was a collection of radio broadcasts from 1966 and 1967: Law and Liberty (1971).
What was significant was this: for 12 years, he presented a comprehensive case against humanism in philosophy and in Western history. He also presented the case for a Christian social order, primarily by way of an exposition of the history of Western civilization and the dependence of this civilization on the church. This was a cultural demolition derby. He distinguished himself as the best-informed evangelical Protestant critic of the modern social order. Nobody in academia had heard of him in 1958. Only a handful of Presbyterian scholars and libertarian readers had heard of him.
He was doing in the field of history and contemporary social criticism what Van Til had been doing ever since 1929 in the rarefied realm of the history of theology and Christian philosophy. Almost no one had heard of Van Til. Rushdoony was showing how Van Til’s insights could be used to present a comprehensive critique of modern humanist culture.
Van Til was a specialist in blowing up things. But he was prudently mute on the issue of what should replace the epistemological rubble all around him. Rushdoony followed this pattern for most of the 1960’s. In 1967, he was not prepared to replace the rubble. On the contrary, he provided more rubble. Then, in 1973, without warning, came The Institutes. This was the first comprehensive book in Protestant casuistry in 300 years. Casuistry had been a long-lost art.
Rushdoony was self-conscious about what he was doing after 1973. He was seeking to establish himself as the modern era’s John Calvin. Calvin’s great work was The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes of Biblical Law would be his great work, he believed. And so it proved to be.
He expected at least some portions of the Protestant world to take his book of judicial and social blueprints and begin to rebuild. This book would serve as the basis of the Christian Reconstruction movement.
The context was crucial. Rushdoony had wandered out of the epistemological rubble that Van Til and he had produced, book by book, holding a copy of a very fat book. “Here is the blueprint. Go and build.” Problem: hardly anyone reads fat books, especially pastors.
McVicar’s narrative does not convey the stark contrast between the comprehensive nature of Rushdoony’s demolition efforts from 1961 to 1971 and the radical discontinuity represented by The Institutes. It is not just that the book defends Old Testament law. It is not just that it was unprecedented in terms of its exposition of biblical law and its hundreds of applications to contemporary issues. The crucial importance of the book was this: it was a call to Bible-based casuistry on a scale that had never been seen in the history of the church.
The church was not ready for this. It still isn’t.
G. WESTMINSTER SEMINARY’S ATTACK
In November 1990, Zondervan’s Academic Press subdivision published a book attacking theonomy. It was written by faculty members at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. It was Titled Theonomy: A Reformed Response. The title implied that theonomy was somehow not part of the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition. Therefore, it needed a Reformed response.
My response was immediate. I started the process of three books in response. All three were published in 1991. I took on the entire faculty, article by article, in my book, Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy. Greg Bahnsen wrote No Other Standard. I edited Theonomy: An Informed Response, essays by Gary DeMar, Bahnsen, Ken Gentry, Ray Sutton, me, and Pastor John Maphet. I wrote this in my Introduction to this book:
Given the fact that the Westminster faculty had previously produced only three symposia from the school’s inception in 1929, beginning with The Infallible Word in 1946, why did they decide to write this one? I still find it revealing that not one of the other three symposia was devoted to a refutation of a particular theological movement. The faculty must be publicly scratching where the itching is most intense. But why is their itching so intense? Lurking here is the making of a doctoral dissertation in the sociology of knowledge.
This was the only book attacking theonomy written by a group of theologians. It allowed me to publish responses. Yet McVicar did not mention this book or my organized response. This was a major oversight.
The original book is long out of print. It is sold in a spiral-bound edition at Westminster Seminary’s bookstore. The 1990 faculty members are all dead or retired, with the exception of Tim Keller. Rev. Keller tried to show that Ray Sutton and I do not understand the biblical view of charity. I got to respond in my book, and Sutton got to respond in the collection.
In contrast to the long-absent WTS book, the three ICE books are online for free. They do not go away. That is the great thing about PDF files and a print icon. Paper is cheap. Toner is cheap. Books need not go away. Westminster Seminary went away on this issue, but theonomy did not. The issues are still unresolved.4. GAFFES
I have focused so far on the book’s gaps: errors of omission. Now it is time to list some errors of commission. Most of them are not serious. They do not undermine the book’s overall presentation. If there is a second edition, he can remove them. (If there is not a second edition, they will not matter.)
A. DISPENSATIONALISM’S RAPTURE
McVicar does not understand dispensational premillennialism. He writes: “By the middle of the 20th century, the vast majority of socially and theologically conservative evangelicals adhered to some popular form of dispensational premillennialism that awaited the immediate rapture of the church, followed by judgment and the destruction of a fallen world” (p. 136). He has never examined any of the dispensational prophecy timeline charts of future events. A representative one is here.
The rapture of the saints to heaven is immediately followed by the great tribulation. The great tribulation is not the tribulation of the fallen world. It is the tribulation of the State of Israel. The world superpower, variously identified over the decades, will surround Jerusalem and bring horrendous judgment against the Jews. Not only will this not be the judgment and the destruction of a fallen world, it will be the judgment of Israel by the superpower of the fallen world. Only after a seven-year tribulation in which the superpower is dominant will Jesus return bodily, accompanied by angels (and maybe also by resurrected, ethically perfect, sickness-free, immortal Christians) to set up His earthly bureaucratic kingdom for a literal thousand years—a time for putting humanists and Muslims in their proper place. Then will come the final judgment.
He needs to do more reading in this area. He can start with my book, Rapture Fever (1993). Then he should read Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness (1996).
B. VAN TIL ON THE POINT OF CONTACT
He wrote of Van Til’s philosophy: “Between creator and created, there is an insurmountable gulf that cannot be bridged by any willful means of a created being. Instead, the only bond between God and his creation is grace” (p. 40). This is incorrect. Van Til did not teach this. McVicar should replace the word “grace” with “the image of God in all men.”
Van Til argued that the only point of contact between the covenant-keeper and the covenant-breaker is the image of God in man. Van Til wrote this in his book/syllabus, Apologetics (1959). He ended Chapter 3, “Point of Contact,” with these words:
The truly Biblical view, on the other hand, applies atomic power and flame-throwers to the very presupposition of the natural man’s ideas with respect to himself. It does not fear to lose a point of contact by uprooting the weeds rather than by cutting them off at the very surface. It is assured of a point of contact in the fact that every man is made in the image of God and has impressed upon him the law of God. In that fact alone he may rest secure with respect to the point of contact problem. For that fact makes men always accessible to God. That fact assures us that every man, to be a man at all, must already be in contact with the truth. He is so much in contact with the truth that much of his energy is spent in the vain effort to hide this fact from himself. His efforts to hide this fact from himself are bound to be self-frustrative.
Only by thus finding the point of contact in man’s sense of deity that lies underneath his own conception of self-consciousness as ultimate can we be both true to Scripture and effective in reasoning with the natural man.
C. RODNEY CLAPP’S 1987 HATCHET JOB
He argued that Rodney Clapp’s 1987 article in Christianity Today, “Democracy as Heresy,” was important because it shifted the debate over theonomy from theology to politics.
In a single article, Clapp distilled the spirit of a decades-long theological fight into a fundamental accusation: Rushdoony was a heretic. But Clapp sidestepped condemning all Reconstructionists as religious heretics and instead portrayed them as political heretics out of touch with contemporary evangelicalism and, worse still, contemporary American political sensibilities. In effect, Clapp’s reporting brought an arcane subject out of the seminaries and the editor’s office and into the contemporary debate over religion’s place in American democracy in the era of the Religious Right (p. 203).
McVicar reprinted the article’s cartoons of Rushdoony, me, and Greg Bahnsen (p. 203). From the day I read the article, I was delighted with mine. It was on target.
Clapp’s cover story began with two assertions, both of which were deliberately misleading. He said we propose this for society: “the abolition of democracy and the reinistitution of slavery, for starters.” He cited no sources.
It is true that we recommend the restoration of restitution and the abolition of the prison system. If a thief cannot repay the victims double (Exodus 22:1, 4), he should be sold into slavery. The sale price should be used to compensate the victims. This is what the U.S. Contitution authorizes. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Amendment 13, 1865) Clapp failed to mention Amendment 13. He tried to make our concept of restitution look both preposterous and historically radical.
He had a hidden agenda. The editors of Christianity Today did not know about it. He was a closet disciple of the anti-evangelical Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who is a promoter of Karl Barth and also Mennonite pacifism. Hauerwas denies both the possibility and legitimacy of the idea of Christian civilization. In his 1981 book, Reforming Christian Social Ethics: Ten Theses, he offered Thesis 10: “The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.” So, there is no Christian America today, there never has been, and there never should be. Hauerwas is forthright. “The American people have become so corrupt that the only thing we can do is take the Bible away from them.” Yes, this is hyperbolic language, but he means it with respect to Christians’ use of the Bible in reforming the government, e.g., anti-abortion.
This remarkably inarticulate man is described by the Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology as follows: “Stanley Hauerwas is the most prolific and comprehensive, as well as perhaps the most important, theological ethicist alive.” Then again, perhaps not.
His premise is a frontal attack on the evangelical faith of Billy Graham and the other founders of Christianity Today when they started the magazine in 1956. This outlook undergirded Clapp’s rejection of Christian Reconstruction. Clapp, of course, did not mention Hauerwas in his article. To have mentioned him would have tipped off readers to Clapp’s non-evangelical religious premises. The readers wanted to make America Christian, including the government. He opposed this agenda.
Clapp was on the CT editorial board for two decades until 1999. Then he took another job. Once he was off the payroll, he then revealed his true colors, his true confession of faith. He started writing for The Christian Century, the theologically liberal magazine that CT had been launched in 1956 to counter. He no longer had to hide his theological views from his readers. He wrote a glowing article on Hauerwas in 2014.
Clapp was as hostile to Christianity Today‘s mild-mannered calls for the Christian reform of America and American politics as he was of Christian Reconstructionism’s call for the same thing. But his peers at the magazine did not recognize this. He kept his opinions to himself until he quit. When he got off of its payroll, he abandoned its agenda.
I immediately wrote a detailed response: “Honest Reporting as Heresy.” I mailed it to my subscribers in March. Clapp’s essay provided an opportunity for me to spell out the details of Christian Reconstruction for my subscribers. It never hurts to remind donors why they are donating. A good way to do this is to re-state the basics in a lively response to an attack. The less competent the attack, the more effective is the response in re-committing the readers. Clapp was vulnerable. He had not done his homework.
Clapp’s article was a hatchet piece. The editors knew this. They gave it front-cover positioning. As I reported in my response, three years earlier, they had rejected an article on Christian Reconstruction written by Dallas Seminary’s history professor John Hannah. They had rejected it because it did not go into the details of my split with Rushdoony. Clapp did.
Gary DeMar responded briefly to Clapp in his book, The Debate Over Christian Reconstruction (1988). “In a feature article in Christianity Today, Rodney Clapp made the outlandish mistake of pitting Reconstructionist political theory against democratic procedures, a portrayal which runs counter to everything in the Presbyterian and Puritan historical background for the position!” (p. xiii). I had made the same point in my 1987 response.
As an attack dog, Clapp was a chihuahua.
Christianity Today did not follow up on this. One article does not bury a movement. We were just getting rolling.
D. IGNORING OUR BOOK-LONG RESPONSES
McVicar listed attacks in 1988–89.
Following immediately on the heels of Clapp’s article, three representative books attacking the dominion mandate appeared in the evangelical press during a short one-year burst in 1988–89: Dave Hunt’s Whatever Happened to Heaven (1988), H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice’s Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? (1988), and Hal Lindsey’s The Road to Holocaust (1989) (p. 204).
McVicar did not mention my immediate responses to the books he listed: four books published by the Institute for Christian Economics: (1) Gary DeMar The Debate Over Christian Reconstruction (1989), (2) Greg Bahnsen and Ken Gentry, House Divided: The Break-Up of Dispensational Theology (1989), (3) Gary DeMar and Peter J. Leithart, The Legacy of Hatred Continues: A Response to Hal Lindsey’s The Road to Holocaust; (4) Gary DeMar and Peter J. Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity: A Biblical Response to Dave Hunt (1990). These books were all online on my website when he wrote his dissertation and his book. From 2005 on, I have a department in which 90 books and 800 newsletters are available to download for free. He made no reference to this in his book. If this was an oversight, it was a huge one.
The story of the response to Lindsey is my favorite publishing story. We were tipped off that his book was going to be released in a month at the annual convention of the Christian Booksellers Association. I was able to get two review copies. I asked DeMar and Leithart to write a book in two weeks. My typesetter had less than a week to typeset it. The printer had one week to print it. I paid a premium for a fast turnaround. We had the book ready in 30 days. I had copies sent directly to the convention. ICE rented a booth. An employee handed out free copies to every other booth. This made sure that everyone knew that we had a response to Lindsey’s book.
His book had no negative impact. None of the books did. But they let me sell thousands of books. This strengthened support from people on the ICE mailing list. The true believers in any movement love a good donnybrook . . . if their champion wins.
I knew how to debate in print. So did my colleagues. We knew how to slice apart a critic’s arguments. We did this over and over for a decade. We did not start these public donnybrooks, but we always finished them. We were the last men standing. Eventually, they stopped writing their hostile books. That hurt ICE’s book sales.
Here was my strategy. I responded to a book-long theological attack by publishing at least one book. I found that the critics always went away. They did not write follow-up attack books. They did not like getting intellectually embarrassed in full public view. The strategy worked. After 2000, I posted all of these response books online for free as PDFs.
Controversy is great for controversial figures who are also skilled marketers. I am such a person. Rushdoony was not. He told me early in our relationship that he decided never to respond in print to critics. I thought then that was a mistake. I made money for the ICE from my responses to book-long attacks on Christian Reconstruction. I love to write. I loved to sell printed books back then. As I said, there is nothing better than a donnybrook to sell ideological books. Seething is not my style. Writing a counter-attack is. Marketing books is.
Without those book-long attacks, this April 1988 debate would never have taken place. It was held in Dallas, Texas. Two of the critics who wrote books agreed to debate me and Gary DeMar. The room had dozens of students from Dallas Theological Seminary, the nation’s most influential dispensational seminary. It was a great opportunity for DeMar and me.
E. GARY NORTH, PATRIARCHALIST
On page 188, he wrote: “With his effortless blend of postmillennial eschatology, patriarchal vision, deurbanization, and procapitalist economics, North became a hit on the survivalist lecture circuit, and his non-Reconstructionist books and newsletters sold well.” Here I focus on the phrase, “patriarchal vision.”
Here is one of those cases where McVicar did not do his homework. Specifically, he ignored my book attacking Rushdoony’s patriarchal theology: Baptized Patriarchalism: The Cult of the Family (1995). I began the book with this:
Because of the importance I place on the question of the covenantal relationship between the family and the local church, I hereby place the entire contents of Baptized Patriarchalism into the public domain. Anyone may reproduce all or any part of this book without permission from the author or the original publisher.
I could not have made my point more clear. McVicar was unaware of this book. Yet it has been online for free for almost two decades. This was not a minor mistake.
F. BACKYARD BOMB SHELTERS
On the same page as the mistake regarding my patriarchalism, he made another inexcusable error. He wrote about my co-authored book, Fighting Chance. It was a book on what the United States government ought to do with respect to civil defense. He wrote this: “. . . Fighting Chance: Ten Feet to Survival (1986), a passionate plea for backyard bomb shelters co-authored with scientist and homeschooling advocate Arthur Robinson. . . .” He obviously had not read the book. He had no idea what was in the book. It was not about backyard bomb shelters.
The book was about what the federal government had an obligation to do: protect Americans from nuclear war. This meant building blast/fallout shelters in American cities. The Cold War was still on. Gorbachev had just come to power.
In 1985, Robinson went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which had a huge archive on civil defense. That archive was about to be sent to the dumpster by order of the government. No excuse for this destruction was offered. He skimmed through approximately 1,000 documents. He photocopied hundreds of them. He brought them to Tyler in cartons, and I wrote the book. He sat in one room with the documents, and I wrote. I would go to him and ask for clarification. Then I would go back and write some more. Then he would read what I wrote. He would offer suggestions based on one or more of his documents. It took me two weeks to write it.
A reviewer on Amazon correctly summarizes its thesis. “The authors propose that America adopt a nationwide system of shelter construction, designed to house the population in the event of a nuclear confrontation. They take pains to discuss stockage of food, water, and medicine, as well as the likely amount of space per person. The benefits are that, by being defended, we are less a target for nuclear blackmail, and the system could be used for natural and man-made disasters.”
The book was mailed out to about 250,000 people by Robinson’s Institute. In 1988, Robinson went to the Republican National Convention. On the basis of the impact of our book, which by then was well known, he persuaded the platform committee to include the following statement. “In recognition of our responsibility to provide optimum protection for the American people from terrorists, accidents and—should deterrence fail—from war, we also believe that a high priority should be given to Civil Defense.”
My recommendation to McVicar: before you make another author’s book sound nutty, read it. See if it really is nutty.
G. NORTH FLUNKED OUT OF SEMINARY
He wrote this:
Rushdoony encouraged North’s drift toward Reformed Calvinism by recommending him for entry into the Westminster theological seminary (WTS) in Philadelphia to study under Cornelius Van Til. North despised WTS, resented its rote curriculum, and hated Van Til’s teaching style. He flunked out in epic fashion, testily abandoning the seminary in 1964 (p. 84).
I did leave after one year. My grade point average was 2, which at WTS was a B average.
McVicar later rubbed salt in the nonexistent wound: Rushdoony “pushed him to his ill-fated tenure at Westminster Seminary, one of the most prestigious educational institutions in conservative theological circles” (p. 150). There was nothing ill-fated about it. It was a major turning point in my theological career, as I will explain shortly. I became Reformed in the spring of 1964. I was a predestinarian in the fall of 1963, but not Reformed.
Another major mistake appears in the paragraph on page 55: “. . . North was a political conservative by temperament and a recently converted dispensational evangelical.” On the contrary, I was committed to what is known as hyper-dispensationalism. This is a view of the history of the church that says the church was not created in Acts 2, but rather in Acts 8. In Acts 2, Peter cites Joel 2 as foretelling the creation of the church. But this violates a fundamental dispensational tenet that the church was not predicted in the Old Testament. Beginning in 1962, I recognized that this citation was inconsistent. So, I adopted the hyper-dispensational position promoted by Cornelius Stamm: Acts 8, not Acts 2.
I was a dispensationalist when I entered Westminster seminary in the fall of 1963. I was converted to postmillennialism, not by Rushdoony, but by Prof. John Murray. In the spring of 1964, I audited three of his courses. The first was senior systematics. The second was a course on the second half of the book of Romans. The third was a course on the doctrine of sanctification. I was also taking a freshman level course in systematic theology from him.
His lectures were precise. He was by far the most precise lecturer I have ever heard. It was like listening to a man read a nineteenth-century theology treatise. I never heard another professor lecture without notes, yet provide a verbal outline of exactly where he was in his lectures. “Point A, subsection 1.” On September 25, 2020, Westminster Seminary posted two of his lectures on YouTube. They were delivered the year before I arrived at the seminary. If you can tolerate an hour and a half of these lectures, you are a highly motivated student of systematic theology. They are here and here.
Not only did I tolerate Murray for eight hours of classroom lectures a week, he changed my thinking more than any other classroom teacher ever did. He reshaped my theological outlook.
In his lectures on Romans 11, he converted me from hyper-dispensationalism to postmillennialism. Yet he was not a forceful advocate of postmillennialism. He did not mention it in his lectures in systematic theology for seniors. Yet that course covered eschatology. There was an unreconciled conflict in Murray’s lectures on eschatology. (He never wrote a book on systematic theology. His best student did: John Frame. It does not read anything like Murray’s tightly constructed lectures.)
In his exposition of Romans 11, he followed the exegesis that Princeton Seminary theologian Charles Hodge had presented in his exposition of Romans 11 exactly one century earlier. Hodge commented on verse 15: “The conversion of the Jews will be attended with the most glorious consequences for the whole world.” The conversion of the Jews still awaits the church: the re-grafting of the branch of covenant Israel into the church’s olive tree (vv. 16–24). That event will produce the greatest outpouring of Christian blessings in history (v. 12). This is clearly postmillennial. Hodge declared at the end of his comments on Chapter 11: “An earnest desire, prompting to prayer and effort, for their restoration, as an event fraught with blessings to them and to all the world, and one which God has determined to bring to pass.” Murray converted me to the position in one classroom session. His lectures were put into print in Volume 2 of his The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1965). This commentary was published subsequently in one volume.
In his course on sanctification, he presented his case for a three-part structuring: definitive sanctification, progressive sanctification, and final sanctification. The individual is definitively sanctified at the time of his conversion. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to him ethically by God. He then works out his salvation with fear and trembling. His view is presented here. This culminates in his final sanctification at the last judgment. I adopted this view with respect to personal sanctification. Two decades later, I realized that his view of progressive sanctification applies to social sanctification. This is what distinguishes my view of postmillennialism. I got this outlook from Murray, not from Rushdoony.
Murray persuaded me of a concept of history that is tied specifically to Christian ethics. It is also tied to an eschatological event: the conversion of the Jews. I am aware of no place in Rushdoony’s writings in which he deals exegetically with the future conversion of the Jews.
The reason why I left Westminster was that I was persuaded by the acting president of the seminary, Edmund P. Clowney, that I was not fit for the ministry. He gave a presentation sometime in the first two weeks of school. It was on what it would take to be a successful minister. I decided that I would not be a successful minister. I decided to leave the seminary at the end of the year. I decided to go back into academia. I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on developing an explicitly Christian theory of economics. I committed myself publicly to this task at a Sunday evening meeting at the church across the street from the seminary. That was going to be my calling. And so it was. I completed that task last month.
H. MIDDLING ERRORS
McVicar referred to Rushdoony’s congregation in Southern California: Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church (p. 99). He had no congregation. He was technically “laboring outside the bounds of Presbytery.” He never joined an OPC congregation in Southern California. When the Southern California Presbytery protested this arrangement in 1970, demanding that he switch his membership—Presbyterian pastors belong to their regional presbyteries, not to a congregation—he left the OPC.
He quoted Kim Philips as saying that J. Howard Pew’s Christian Economics had a small readership (p. 119). In fact, Christian Economics, a fortnightly tabloid newspaper, had the largest circulation of any conservative periodical in its era. Pew sent it free of charge and without request to every minister he could locate. This was the equivalent of spam. At its peak, it had something in the range of 200,000 readers. It was shut down shortly after Pew died in 1973.
I. MINOR ERRORS
The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) was not in upstate New York (pp. 63, 152). It was in Irvington, 28 miles north of New York City.
I started working at FEE in 1971, not 1972 (p. 152).
Leonard Read did not leave the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to start FEE (p. 66). He left the Chamber in 1945 to go to the National Industrial Conference Board. He soon left the NICB to start FEE.
FEE was not dedicated to “working to link free market policies with basic Christian principles” (p. 44; see also p. 119). Read was a mystic, not a Christian. Rev. Ed Opitz was not a Trinitarian.
I started the Institute for Christian Economics in California in 1975, not in Texas in 1980 (p. 155).
Dan Barton’s first name is David (p. 196).
Rushdoony’s 1956 article in Christianity Today was not “one of the first articles authored for a wide, non-Calvinist Protestant audience” (p. 113). In 1956, he had been writing a weekly column for years for The Sunday School Times.
Greg Bahnsen had three sons, not two (p. 156).CONCLUSION
McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction is a generally reliable introduction to both Christian Reconstruction and the career of R. J. Rushdoony. It is based on extensive research, although not quite enough. It is based on careful reading of a lot of primary source documents, but not carefully enough with a few of them.
This book will remain the starting point for any serious researcher who wants to understand these topics. The footnotes are like breadcrumbs for any researcher to follow to the gingerbread house of a tenure-track job offer.
I hope there is a second edition. I also hope that the author makes corrections. It will be a better book if he does. I would not expect him to fill in all of the gaps in Part 3, but he would be wise to correct the errors in Part 4: gaffes.