If you don't know who R.J. Rushdoony is, feel free to move along...
Review of Institutes of Biblical Law
I was quite taken aback to begin reading the introduction to the Institutes of Biblical Law and find Calvin’s view of the law dubbed “heretical nonsense” (9). Rushdoony pulls no punches.
Surveying the 10 commandments for 650 pages, and then turning to the use of the law throughout Scripture for another 200, Rushdoony is an insightful cultural critic and decent exegete, but his theological view of the law within the entire scope of Scripture is off kilter.
There is a wealth of information on the Ten Commandments, applied throughout Scripture and today. He helpfully explains the principle behind obscure and bizarre (sounding to moderns) laws. The danger of doing this so well and specifically is inferring too much from the law, and Rushdoony falls into this plenty often, I think. Deuteronomy 22:5 says, “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment.” This leads to transvestites, but starts with confusing gender roles. So, men shouldn’t do “woman’s work” (437), he says. It’s good to apply every Word of God specifically, and in every legitimate way possible, but we may not infer too much from a text. Scripture must interpret Scripture. In this example, we note the Proverbs 31 woman makes forays into “man’s work,” but it isn’t her primary activity. A man can help his wife with the dishes without violating Scripture!
Theologically, everything leads back to the paramount law for Rushdoony, whether it is grace, communion, baptism, etc. An example: “The sacrament of the Lord's Supper is the renewal of the covenant so that the sacrament itself re-establishes the law" (7). That's just a strange way to put things. Love and covenant relationship is the point, more than the law. The sacraments re-affirm the ongoing relationship IN SPITE of our law breaking. They are sacraments of the covenant of grace. This phrase gives me a queer feeling that for Rushdoony the law is the end all and be all of religion. This often feels like Judaizing, and contrary to Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrews, to which he seldom refers. It feels like it, but it is not. His view of grace cancelling the punishments of the law appears to be orthodox elsewhere, though he places much more emphasis on the use of the law in society. He hammers away at Romans 8:4, that the righteous requirement of the law is meant to be fulfilled in us, and this is needed in our day. He just does it in a way that makes you think the law is the end-all and be-all of Christianity, which it isn’t.
He denies any place for common grace: that the unregenerate can come to some wisdom in governing men and nations. A society is either founded on the Law-Word of God and faithful, or it is looking to the wisdom of man and it is apostate. This is certainly clear, but too either-or. What if states are free to apply the “general equity” of God’s law, as Westminster and Calvin taught? He is quick to throw out the charge of antinomianism, and the church HAS fallen into sin by claiming to be under grace. But Rushdoony charges the mainstream Reformed position, that the state is not held to enforce the whole of Biblical law, as antinomian.
Rushdoony is very influential in my circles. He gives you a clear place to stand (or a way to fight) in a morally degenerating culture: with the law. As the church finds herself increasingly in a “bread and circuses” culture, she is more susceptible to over-responding into the Donatist and ascetic heresies. I’m not calling Rushdoony a Donatist or heretic. But he does make some grandiose claims for how the law can preserve and save a society. I would like to interact positively with his views, especially asking which laws are binding on individuals and on the state today (without facing the charge of antinomianism for even asking the question), while toning down the “silver bullet” expectations that just going back to the law will solve our problems. The law is a real piece of the solution, as is the Church, and especially the Spirit working repentance and grace in the heart.
There is too much for a short review. Insightful exegesis is mixed with off balance theology. This continues in the appendices by Gary North. John Frame sums it up best: “Yes, we must not substitute love for law; but we had better not substitute law for love either. Yes, love may be defined in terms of law; but the requirement of the law is also summarized and defined in the love-commandment…. A bit more “sympathy” with people and a bit less preoccupation with legal rights would greatly improve his treatment of these matters…. Rushdoony has been so preoccupied with the question of the authority of the law that he has missed some very weighty elements of biblical teaching…. he tends to set himself off so sharply from other Reformed thinkers that he is not in a very good position to benefit from their counsel. Nor are they in a good position to benefit from his.”
See here for my previous thoughts on Rushdoony
See here for John Frame’s excellent and more indepth review of this book.