R. J. RUSHDOONY AND THE COVENANT IN EDUCATION

This post is the first in a five-part series on R. J. Rushdoony’s treatment of issues in American education in terms of the biblical covenant model. Addressing sovereignty, this article will be followed by others on authority, ethics, sanctions, and inheritance respectively.

The messenger called the priest. Slowly they unrolled the ancient manuscript found inside. In it was a message from their ancestors. Both knew immediately what had been found. They wept, as their eyes raced through the document, reading of a time gone by that obligated them to greatness.

 The king had to be told.

 The priest was selected to take the document to him. At first he walked; then he ran. The guards outside the king’s palace were instructed to move out of the way, for he had a message from the past.

 Running into the king’s court and interrupting the proceedings, the priest bowed and held the document up to the king. Reaching out, the teenager clasped the manuscript in his hand. He stood, frozen like a statue for what seemed like time without an end. Everyone in this great court covered with gold, silver, and precious jewels waited speechlessly to see what the king was going to do. Then he looked up. But his eyes did not meet the numbed faces encircling him. They stretched up to the heavens.

 Then he cried out before all the court, “God, forgive me and my people.” He tore his clothes and fell on his face, pleading for God’s mercy.[1]

This scene of young King Josiah reflects a time like 21st century America, a period of national apostasy and rejection of covenantal relationship with God. The great Josiah, king like whom there was never any other in Israel (II Kings 23:25), repented and asked God’s mercy for his nation, accepting and embracing the lost covenant of Israel’s fathers. Ray Sutton begins his groundbreaking That You May Prosper by painting this picture before defining and describing the elements of a biblical covenant.

Not that Sutton was the first to write about the covenant, for as Professor Milton Fisher writes:

Others, such as Meredith G. Kline, have published helpful suggestions concerning archaeological and philological discoveries in this area. But Ray Sutton has now both simplified and expanded upon the rich lode made available through modern research. This he does by citing the biblical reasons for historic successes and failures in human history. In the realms of family, church, and state – covenant institutions by divine design – only when there is conformity to the biblical pattern and requirements of covenantal relationships is divine blessing to be expected and experienced.[2]

 Dr. Gary North, Sutton’s editor, wrote in his original foreword that the book introduced “something of great importance.”[3] North argues that although others have presented covenant structural models of more than five points, invariably they all include elements that fit into one of Sutton’s five. After reading four manuscripts and editing the book, North attests to the doctrinal value of That You May Prosper: “I was convinced that the book would make a major theological contribution…Time will tell. (So will eternity.) One thing is sure: Sutton offers us a precise definition of covenant theology, for which the Protestant world had been waiting for a long, long time.”[4]

North and Fisher both summarize and list the covenant structure in several places, but Sutton himself provides the clearest, most comprehensive explanation. Sutton calls it the Deuteronomic Covenant because of the book in which he discovered it.

True Transcendence (Deut. 1:1-5). Kline and others point out that the covenant begins with a “preamble.” But what does the Biblical preamble of Deuteronomy teach? Here we find that God declares His transcendence. True transcendence does not mean God is distant but that He is distinct.

 Hierarchy (Deut. 1:6-4:49). The second section of the covenant is called the “historical prologue.” Suzerain treaty scholars point out that in this section of Deuteronomy, the author develops a brief history of God’s Sovereign relationship to His people around an authority principle. What is it? And, what does it mean? Briefly, God established a representative system of government. These representatives were to mediate judgment to the nation. And the nation was to mediate judgment to the world.

 Ethics (Deut. 5-26). The next section of the covenant is usually the longest. The stipulations are laid out. In Deuteronomy, this section is 22 chapters long (Deut. 5-26). The Ten Commandments are re-stated and developed. These stipulations are the way God’s people defeat the enemy. By relating to God in terms of ethical obedience, the enemies fall before His children. The principle is that law is at the heart of God’s covenant. The primary idea is that God wants His people to see an ethical relationship between cause and effect: be faithful and prosper.

 Sanctions (Deut. 27-30). The fourth part of Deuteronomy lists blessings and curses (Deut. 27-28). As in the suzerain treaty, Kline observes that this is the actual process of ratification. A “self-maledictory” oath is taken and the sanctions are ceremonially applied. The principle is that there are rewards and punishments attached to the covenant.

 Continuity (Deut. 31-34). Continuity determines the true heirs. This continuity is established by ordination and faithfulness. It is historic and processional. The covenant is handed down from generation to generation. Only the one empowered by the Spirit can obey and take dominion. He is the one who inherits. The final principle of the covenant tells “who is in the covenant,” or “who has continuity with it,” and what the basis of this continuity will be.[5]

 After finding and articulating the covenant model in the mid-1980s, Sutton then other writers began discovering that the pattern held throughout several books and events in biblical history. Today the model lends a practical and logical outline for many books and compositions, including this synthesis itself.

 One striking fact, however, is that Cornelius Van Til and R. J. Rushdoony were already presenting the Christian view in covenantal terms, this practice going back over half a century with the former and certainly decades with the latter. A quick survey of Rushdoony’s writings on education will reveal his intuitive use of Sutton’s model, or at least terminology, many of those works having been published well before Sutton’s.

SOVEREIGNTY

In his Position Paper No. 19 of the Chalcedon Report, Rushdoony provides his own succinct definition of sovereignty, “Very simply defined, sovereignty means a monopoly of power and law. The two are inseparable: power and law are attributes of sovereignty.”[6] This goes well with Sutton’s affirmation of God’s distinctiveness. That distinctiveness reveals that God is transcendent over His creation, but also that He is immanent with His elect. Rushdoony acknowledges and drives this point throughout his writings.

The Creator’s power to be above and simultaneously within His creation gives Him the right to do as He pleases, give the standards He desires upheld, and judge His creation according to His will. Rushdoony put it this way in introducing his book on Van Til’s theology:

The sovereignty of the self-contained God is the key to every field, in that only the God of Scripture makes all things possible and explicable and is thus the basic premise not only of theology, but of philosophy, science and indeed all knowledge. In that God is the Creator of all things, He is their only valid principle of interpretation, in that they derive both their existence and meaning from His creative act.[7]

The person with the power, the control, the right to order the way and the things that children learn must be an all-powerful being. His omnipotent word must be law over the universe. If He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, He surely owns the hills themselves. He climaxed His beloved creation with the making of mankind in His own image. He loves this creation so, that He sent His son to satisfy His sovereign requirement of blood for blood. Rushdoony says it this way, “[A]ll Scripture teaches…that our salvation is by God’s sovereign and atoning grace, but our sanctification as well as our continuing place in His providential care depend on our obedience to His law-word….”[8]

Sadly, the United States has been and is far from meeting God’s standards in the rearing of children. A disobedient rejection of and aversion to the sanctification mentioned by Rushdoony is the result of a rejection of the sovereignty of God. Unredeemed man has decided that the God of the Bible is not worthy to be in charge of education. Man wants fallen men to be in charge, and as families and churches have fallen in line with this humanistic spirit, the civil authorities have accepted the role of sovereign by default. Twenty-first century man has robbed God of His sovereign position.

But before the excited Protestant begins to blame the Roman or Greek humanistic and pagan teachings, and those deserve to be blamed, a quick historical look will show that even the greatest of Reformers fell into the snare that is man’s willingness to allow anyone other than God to be in charge of education.

Martin Luther himself, when reforming educational practices of the 1500s, became frustrated and appealed to the state for help. Parents had lost the motivation to send their children to school since the old order served to prepare them either for work in the church or work in the military. According to Kienel, this parental apathy challenged Luther’s “first choice for Christian schooling…an alliance between parents and the churches.”[9] If the state compelled parents to send their children to school, Luther reasoned, then those children would be trained in God’s ways in those schools. Besides the parents, Luther’s other main problem was the incompetent religious leaders.  Since he saw that family and church were ostensibly incapable of teaching their children, Luther “[u]ltimately…placed his churches and schools under civil government….”[10]

In Geneva, John Calvin went “door-to-door seeking funds for [his Academy] building—which stands to this day.”[11] Calvin believed that the Church and school should work as one, but he also was able to win the support of the City Council and ultimately succeeded in having the three institutions working together toward unabashed “Calvinistic” teachings. Calvin’s efforts accomplished a glorious “Christian commonwealth,” as Rushdoony would call it.[12] However, even Calvin looked to the city-state for more than protection as he “persuaded the Geneva City Council to donate the revenue from all civil court fines to his school’s building fund.”[13]

In 1554, Calvin invited John Knox to Geneva to escape “Bloody Mary’s” wrath in England. Knox was able to learn of Calvin’s school system first hand, and was inspired to replicate it in his homeland of Scotland when he was able to return in 1559. Knox took Calvin’s city-wide system (Geneva being a city-state) and extended it nationwide. Finding favor among Scottish civic leaders, Knox and his fellow Scottish reformers were able to found a system of Christian education that was instrumental in advancing the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless, as any centralized system, it brought with it the philosophical and bureaucratic demands of a national government. Kienel provides important insight here:

Seeing the need for an established Protestant church, the Parliament asked the same six ministers who had drafted Scotland’s Confession of Faith to draw up a plan showing how the new church should be governed. This document is significant because it included a comprehensive plan for Christian school education. Their finished work was…The First Book of Discipline… [It] required Parliament to use the new source of income generated by the vast territories formerly owned by the Catholic church…to be used to support the gospel ministry, to promote education, and to care for the poor.[14]

Though this attempt to secure public funds for Christian education failed, Knox succeeded in getting “the vigorous church community” to implement compulsory attendance to Scottish schools.[15]

In the New World, the Puritans sought to extend God’s Kingdom by implementing Calvin’s views on education. These Calvinists in America opened the door for the civil minister to intrude into the family and church spheres by passing legislation requiring public funds to hire and support school teachers and schools. Actually, the first Massachusetts Education Law was passed in 1642, requiring that parents and masters ensure that their children be literate, as well as understand the laws of the commonwealth.  As Amy Matzat of Notre Dame University says, “All children, and servants as well, should be able to demonstrate competency in reading and writing as outlined by the governing officials.” Parents who did not comply with the law could have their children removed from the home.[16]

Within five years, the Massachusetts Bay councilmen had become more assertive in their attempts to control education. Formally known as the Massachusetts School Law of 1647, this new act required that every town with at least fifty families hire a teacher to be paid by public funds. Towns with a hundred families also had to provide for a grammar school. If a town did not comply within a year, it must pay five pounds to the next school.[17]

Commonly referred to as the Old Deluder Satan Law, this law was to be enforced and carried out locally, but sovereignty was clearly identified as belonging to the civil authorities. Kienel defends the legislation this way:

There is no question that the new law of 1647 accelerated New England’s commitment to Bible-based education. It did not, however, usher in compulsory school attendance or free education for all students. The new law meant that in towns of fifty or more households a wider range of education opportunities was available.[18]

That argument would not matter much, for within two centuries Horace Mann and his overwhelmingly Unitarian allies on the Massachusetts Board of Education (eight of the first eleven members were Unitarians)[19] ensured that the civil government would be in charge of educating children.

As has been mentioned earlier, Mann spoke religiously, indeed was quite a religious man. He wanted the Bible to be taught in schools and insisted on good morals and virtue. North puts bluntly just how successful Mann and company were:

The Unitarians were wise men; they knew that they were strangers in a generally Christian culture. They realized that they had to disguise their program to establish their religion. They knew that they could not, and should not, receive tax money for their little group of churches in Boston. That would have given the game away. Instead, their agent, Horace Mann, devised and then successfully sold the idea of religiously neutral but universally moral education to the taxpayers of Massachusetts. He did this by adopting the same doctrine of religious neutrality and common-ground knowledge that had worked so well from 1687 (Newton’s Principia) to 1787 (the Constitution). With this, Mann created a new concept of public education. This was the great flim-flam, the establishment of a new national denomination and a new national priesthood.[20]

What the Puritans did locally, Mann magnified to the state level, and eventually it snowballed nationally to create the modern state-controlled (including in this term nationally-controlled) educational establishment.

As Calvinism became entrenched in Western culture, education became more available to more children, in America as well as in Europe. One great spokesman for Calvin’s doctrine was Abraham Kuyper, gifted preacher, theologian, journalist, and statesman. Rising as high as the office of Prime Minister, Kuyper was a political force who was instrumental in bringing about a spiritual awakening in the Netherlands in the 19th century. As Calvinism calls for Christian dominion over all spheres of life, Kuyper led the fight for Christian schools in Holland. The Protestant Reformed Churches in America offer a revealing statement regarding Kuyper’s accomplishment in this field:

Although the goals of [Kuyper’s] Anti-revolutionary Party were never achieved, some accomplishments of note resulted from the years in which the party of Kuyper was a force with which the opposition had to reckon. Perhaps most importantly, a school bill was passed which gave the Christian schools legal parity with the government schools. Prior to Kuyper’s labors on behalf of Christian education, the situation in the Netherlands was very much like it is in this country: government schools were supported by all taxpayers; Christian schools had to be supported by the people who did not want their children taught in government schools; a double burden of taxation and tuition fell upon them. Kuyper succeeded in getting legislation passed which gave government subsidy also to Christian schools.[21]

Having Caesar provide for goods and services that the Bible says are the responsibility of the family is dangerous, for the sovereign that provides for the needs of an institution controls that institution. The ways and philosophy of the sovereign must became those of the institution. Rushdoony spoke unapologetically and forcefully against the undermining of God’s sovereignty over the teaching of children. He articulated and expounded on the two elements of sovereignty: transcendence and immanence.

Transcendence

Sometimes used interchangeably with sovereignty, as Sutton does in his definitions above, transcendence is that power which exists above and beyond all others, above the physical world. A Christian has a hope not just for life here on earth but in the world to come; that trust is based on the trustworthiness of a transcendent God. Believers understand their reason for being and have a reason to live, whereas the non-Christian bases his hope on anything but an eternal destiny. Rushdoony says:

[T]he purely existentialist purpose is really no purpose at all but rather whim. Purpose implies transcendence, a goal to be attained, an inadequacy in the present situation or condition of man, and therefore a determination to reach a superior place. The word comes from pro, before, pono, place, and it is thus a call for man to go beyond himself to an established goal.[22]

The eternal, transcendent God of the universe called everything He created good, very good after He created Eve. Unfortunately, so many believers see only the spiritual as good, with the material belonging to some chance, evolutionary substance somehow outside of the purview of God. To believe this way is to reject Jesus. “[S]upposed Christians are today separating lordship from salvation and denying Christ’s lordship before the millennium.”[23] If Jesus is the savior of men, He is also their LORD.  And if man wants one without the other, he gets neither. This God discriminates. Rushdoony continues, “A belief in the sovereign God means that history works to a division, as men are separated in terms of Him.”[24]

Those who choose to reject covenantal relationship with God are the part of creation that wants to exert a perceived independence from its creator. Depending on his constitution, he lives accordingly, those with more epistemological self-consciousness living more consistently according to their faith.  As Blumenfeld says, “To the humanist, the aim of living is something he calls the ‘good life.’ For the nihilist, it is violence and death.”[25] Either way, lost man becomes schizophrenic and powerless. Rushdoony concludes, “Lacking the transcendental standard which Scripture provides other systems inevitably turn to an immanent one and absolutize the state, the individual, or some other aspect of life.”[26]

Immanence

Because God made the world and personally sustains the world, He is present with the world, but is not part of the world [emphasis Sutton’s]. Because He is the Creator and Sustainer, He is also present (immanent) with us. No other being is fully transcendent, so no other being is universally present. God alone is omnipresent (present everywhere).[27]

The Christian learns that God is near him, yea, comes and lives in him; but lost man cannot be honest with himself because he is not honest with God. He knows in his heart that God is not with him, but he makes excuses or outright lies. Rushdoony says, “The Christian believes that man feels guilty and is guilty because he is fallen, because he is by nature a sinner. The humanist believes rather that man is fallen because he feels guilty.”[28]

This erroneous view of the fall is the cause for man’s rejection of God’s covenant, and thereby separation from God. In The Dilemma of Education, Van Til drives home the reason for fallen man’s distance from God: “Modern man has his own substitute for historic Christianity. He, not God, determines the goal of life. He must be his own standard of right and wrong. He must provide is own power of motivation.”[29]

Allowing children to decide for themselves what is acceptable and to be desired curses them. Van Til and Rushdoony agree again:

The function of the statist schools is at every point to influence the child to determine the goals of his life in independence from God, church and family. The child is encouraged to set his own goals and to see himself as the final reference point in human experience. The child is systematically separated from God and attached to humanistic society.[30]

This was the doctrine of Dewey: separate the child from the sovereign God and attach him to mankind; to attach the child to God and separate him from society is evil.

The problem with this view, besides the obvious eternal ramifications, is that it backfires. “[W]here man declares his independence from God, he will not hesitate to declare his independence from man also, and the result is radical anarchy. Moreover, God being denied, objective and ultimate truth is also denied, and education then affirms merely the principle of change.”[31] Ultimately, every man will end up doing what he thinks is right in his own eyes.

The man with the immanent God in his heart is the covenant man. For him

[t]he world…has total meaning. There are not brute or meaningless facts in the universe, only God-created facts…Only the faithful covenant man can be a consistent and true teacher, because he alone does justice to the facts. Because he is in the covenant of grace, he is in communion with God and therefore open to the universe of meaning. Because he is in communion with God, he is also in communion with other covenant men and has the principles of piece and truth as his guide and mainstay.[32]

The end of the matter is that the God of creation and maintenance of this world is the sovereign who is over His creation and yet near. Rushdoony concludes by reminding the reader of Christ’s claim and rights over “church, state, school, home, vocation…all of life. Nothing short of this is Christian. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty requires it.”[33]


       [1] Ray R. Sutton. That You May Prosper: Dominion by Covenant. (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1997), 1.

       [2] Ibid, x.

       [3] Ibid, xiii.

       [4] Ibid.

       [5] Ibid, 16-17.

       [6] R. J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction. (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1991), 90-91.

       [7] Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1958), vii.

       [8] Rushdoony, Commentaries on the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 2008), 146.

       [9] Kienel, A History of Christian School Education, Volume 1, (Colorado Springs, Colorado: The Association of Christian Schools International, 1998), 171.

       [10] Ibil.

       [11] Ibid, 220.

       [12] Rushdoony, This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1964), 103.

       [13] Ibid.

       [14] Ibid, 227.

       [15] Ibid, 229.

       [16] Downloaded February 28, 2014, from http://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/masslaws.html.

       [17] The law as cited in Kienel, A History of Christian School Education, Vol. 2, (Colorado Springs, Colorado: The Association of Christian Schools International, 2005), 58.

       [18] Ibid, 59.

       [19] Ibid, 67.

       [20] North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 643.

       [21] “Chapter 50: Abraham Kuyper, Dutch Calvinist,” http://www.prca.org/books/portraits/kuyper.htm, Downloaded March 3, 2014.

       [22] Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum, (Vallecito, California:  Ross House Books, 1981), 27.

       [23] Ibid, 114.

       [24] Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education, (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1963), 211.

       [25] Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia,(Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1961),  iii.

       [26] Ibid, 55.

       [27] Sutton, 25.

       [28] Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum, 92.

       [29] Cited in Ibid, 95.

       [30] Ibid, 95-96.

       [31] Ibid, 99.

       [32] Ibid, 100.

       [33] Ibid 115.

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