The Biblical Philosophy of History by R. J. Rushdoony

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Two things I do not get to do often enough:  Re-read books and write reviews of older books.  The pressure is always on to get the latest review copies of new books read and posted.  I am almost always about 20 books behind.  But I did recently venture out to re-read a book that I first read over 30 years ago, I think.  And I will discuss it below.

The book is The Biblical Philosophy of History by Rousas John Rushdoony.  The book is, thankfully, still available from Ross House Books, the primary source for Rushdoony’s works.  Out of the many volumes of RJR’s books, this is one I rarely see quoted or talked about.  That is, until recently when I read a scathing review of it that mentioned that I had talked of this book on my blog.  (I don’t rememeber or find where I referenced this book.)

I first read this in the early days of my pilgrimage that involved wilderness wanderings through the world of intellectual Calvinist worldview thinkers, history, theology, and entering the teaching profession.  I know that when I was reading Rushdoony back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that I was often lost as to what he was saying.  I reached the point where I was on his level around…well, I have never reached his level, to tell the truth.  But I do understand more than I used to.

Let’s begin with this issue:  Why is Rushdoony so often disregarded or purposely ignored, or scorned?  Rushdoony wrote lots of books.  They are still being published, long after his death.  He gave many spoken messages.  He was almost never predictable or prone to giving the status quo interpretations of events. When he was wrong, he could be terribly wrong.  When he was informed and grounded, he could terribly frightening.  Many a smart-aleck lawyer got his come-uppence from stepping into the squared ring with Rushdoony during his testimony in favor of home schoolers.  The guy was far better read than his contemporaries and had a remarkable memory of what he had read.

Rushdoony’s “problem” was that he didn’t fit.  He writes a book about history in this case.  He actually wrote at least five books on historical issues.  But he was not a historian in either the professional or traditional sense.  RJR’s taped lectures include 3 series on history.  My favorite is his World History series.  He would nonchalantly mention having read a half dozen biographies on a particular person as he mentioned them in passing.  Had he had the modern discipline and focus and academic narrowness, he could have been the leading (fill in the blank) historian on a particular topic.  The world of academia is missing the definitive account of tariff issues in post-colonial European trade wars because RJR refused to specialize.  (He did write, according to an Andrew Sandlin, a study of noses!)

So, Rushdoony appeared as an expert on history, much to the disgruntlement of the professional historians.  They often, by the way, disdain Paul Johnson and other popular historians.  Even David McCullough is suspect because his books are best sellers.  “Who is this Bible thumping preacher with a funny name acting like an expert in history? Get thee to a religion department!”

And wouldn’t it be nice if RJR had just been a convention preacher or theology teacher?  But he was salt in the wounds of theological types as well.  So, instead of neatly fitting into the category of a historian or a preacher, he was the proverbial square peg that wouldn’t fit into either round hole.  The same thing happened when he ventured into philosophy or other disciplines.  At the end of The Biblical Philosophy of History, he talks about this problem.  A fellow pastor had written to RJR and suggested that he should not use the pulpit and his role as a pastor to talk about economics.

Rushdoony was not one to be cowed into staying put in a compartmentalized view of ministry.  Repeatedly, he emphasized that God was sovereign over every area of life and thought.  Then he proceeded to apply that concept to every area of life and thought.  Rushdoony was a polymath and widely copious reader.  He loved reading for its own sake, but he was always filtering what he read through his theological grid.  “How does this book, idea, concept square up with Scripture?’ was the guiding principle of his reading.

Many of Rushdoony’s earlier books grew out of grants and commissions to produce studies on particular topics.  He was generally more the essayist rather than the writer who would develop a book on a specific topic.  By that, I mean that his books consisted of essays on different angles of an issue and could often be read out of order in his books.  The Biblical Philosophy of History was published in 1969 and contained no introductory material indicating a theme or design overall in the book.  Instead, some 15 essays (two of which appear as appendices) were put together under the topic of history.  Perhaps, the collection should have had a less bold title and been something like Essays on History.  

Instead, the title of the book is derived from the title of the first essay.  The foundation of that first essay is the doctrine of creation.  “Basic to the Biblical philosophy is the doctrine of creation,” Rushdoony says.  Then he goes on to list and detail the implications of God being the creator in terms of nine propositions.  These propositions provide an outlook on the most fundamental meaning of history and all of life.  The chapter is, in short, a systematic theology, a worldview, an epistemology, a philosophy, and/or a set of governing principles for all of life.

The second chapter develops the theme of victory in history, which is a powerful aspect of not just Rushdoony’s eschatology.  But that is not to say that only post-millennial Christians would appreciate the chapter.  Rushdoony goes on to analyze different theological/philosophical concepts in terms of their relationship to history.  These studies include examinations of time, regeneration, truth, the incarnation, the virgin birth, and natural theology. Needless to say, the college classes that I took on American, British, and Russian history did not have any overlaps with the course of Rushdoony’s writings.

Published at the end of the 1960’s, Rushdoony was addressing many of the fads, fears, and fallacies of his time.  Therefore, some of the concerns or issues are no longer around or are not being posed in the same manner.  But that is the nature of all writing.  What abides is the Biblical insights into life, history, and culture that Rushdoony asserts.

Rushdoony’s premises are all developed out of his Calvinistic theology.  This book was part of a series called the International Library of Philosophical and Historical Studies, published by the Craig Press.  Actually, the series was published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, but the name Craig Press was used to help the studies gain entrance in non-Presbyterian and/or Reformed college settings.  I have written often on the plethora of great books that grew out of Craig Press and largely out of the team work of Rushdoony and publisher Charles Craig.  (See James Jordan, The Closing of the Calvinist Mind” for a brilliant discussion on this topic).

Rushdoony was well aware of historical philosophies that were either opposed to his views or were compatible but not identical.  He was well versed in the Catholic philosophy of history as elaborated by Christopher Dawson (and it was from Rushdoony that I first learned of Dawson). He had read extensively from  Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.  Ernst Kantorowicz had been one of Rushdoony’s instructors and was a major influence on him.  Of course, as he intimates in this book, the “obvious answer, given by Christian faith” was found in the writings of Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til and Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd.  Having rubbed shoulders with quite a few leading conservative thinkersin the 1950s and 60s, Rushdoony was less inclined to accept the views found in the emerging conservative intellectual movement.  (RJR could not stand Russell Kirk, for example, and he gives his a good lashing in this book.)

For the aspiring historian, there are better books that deal with Christian approaches to historical studies, or with the influence of Christians on historical events, or with the history of the Church or particular churches.  This book is not a simple “how to” book, but one that will challenge the reader to think on the connections between the Bible and theology in relationship to history.  As for the now defunct idea that Rushdoony was battling, the connection has to be made between the enemies of the Faith today and the Biblical answers.  Where Rushdoony does not or might not supply the ready made answer, by his reading and primarily by his approach to the Bible, he does give us the method for these times and all times.

2 thoughts on “The Biblical Philosophy of History by R. J. Rushdoony

  1. Ben – Curiously, though your attachment and involvement with theonomy/reconstructionism is/was much deeper than mine, reading your review brought something to mind I had long ago forgotten. In 1976, when I returned from Germany to be stationed at Ft. Sam Houston, I soon heard (from friends still in Germany)that a young captain who had been part of the same church in Germany, had been influenced by someone called “Rushdoony” and had apparently become a disciple of sorts. I had no clue who Rushdoony was, nor did I have even a remote notion of what he was writing/teaching. As best I recollect, my impression (based on the ominous report of friends) was that this Rushdoony was cultish, and suspicious. It would be over a dozen years later before I heard of him again, and I am guessing you know where that was.

  2. One of the sad features of Rushdoony’s life and work is the controversies surrounding theonomy and reconstruction. I have long advocated that people read his books for the content regardless of their views on theonomy. He wrote on a number of topics and referenced a number of issues that other Christians never touched. There is nothing in the book I reviewed above that would necessitate someone embracing or rejecting Rushdoony’s views on other topics. Yes, RJR would have viewed it all as a package deal, but readers are free to glean.

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