A Look at Books

A Theological lnterpretation of Ameritan History (Rousas J. Rushdoony, Editor) by C. GREGG SINGER, International Library of Philosophy and Theology, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1964.

Dr. Singer, chairman of the History Department of Catawba College, Salisbury, North Carolina, has written this book out of the “conviction that ideas in general do have consequences and that theological ideas have tremendous consequences in the life of a nation.” More specifically, the author seeks to substantiate the thesis that “theological liberalism has been a major agent in the decline of the constitution in the political life of the people and in the appearance of a highly centralized government.” It would be difficult to disagree with the conviction out of which Singer writes, for ideas do have consequences. It is more difficult to accept the authors thesis. At least there are some unanswered questions.

Professor Singer’s theological interpretation of American history is largely a study of the “pattern of American political, constitutional, social, and economic development” during the colonial period, when Calvinism or Puritanism was the dominating theological outlook, and during the national period, when Calvinism was declining and liberal theology becoming the predominant theological view. Regretfully, only an introductory chapter is devoted to a discussion of the political, constitutional, social, and economic consequences of Calvinism. The bulk of the book is involved in tracing the consequences of the decline of Calvinism and the rise of liberal theology through the eras of Deism, Transcendentalism, Social Darwinism, the Social Gospel, and the New Deal.

It is difficult to accept Singer s thesis without qualification. There is, first, the contribution of other factors to the increase in the role of government in social and economic life, such as, for example, the increasing industrialization and urbanization of society. (One might still argue, of course, that these are secondary and may themselves be consequences of the liberalization of theology.)

A far more significant difficulty, however, is raised by Professor Singer’s discussion of government and society. Thus, according to Singer, “There was a strict regulation of economic life in New England which differed from the laissez. faire conceptions later made popular by Adam Smith…The Puritans held to the Medieval idea of just price, even though their definition of it was somewhat vague. Wages and prices were both regulated in the interests of justice.” (p. 20) It seems, then, that Professor Singer is not opposed to government regulation of economic and social life.1 And, yet, the development of the entire book is to the conclusion that “the basic issue is the reduction of the total scope of government…to those spheres which arc clearly conferred upon it by the Scriptures…Only then will our government be truly Christian and freedom be restored to its former and proper place in the life of the American people.” (p.300)

Professor Singer’s escape from the dilemma of being for government control and, apparently, also against it, is found in differentiating the motivations upon which the control is founded. Thus, the regulation of economic life by the Puritans was to be condoned on the grounds that it “was not for the purpose of ushering in some kind of a man-made Utopia or humanly achieved millennial period, but for the honoring of the law and glory of God in human affairs.” “The government control advocated by liberal theologians is, presumably, to be condemned because it is “for the purpose of ushering in some kind of a man-made Utopia or humanly achieved millennial period.” But, this puts the Calvinist in a terrible dilemma, for what if he wishes to promote certain government of social action for reasons of honoring the law and glory of God and the liberal theologian wishes to promote the same action as a means of promoting a manmade Utopia?2 Does the Calvinist now drop his desire to honor the law and glory of God?

The possible dilemma of Calvinists advocating action which is also advocated by liberal theologians is apparent throughout Singer’s book. It will be illustrated by only a few examples. On what grounds. for example, should Calvinists have opposed the abolitionists? Because they were liberal in their theology? How would a Supreme Court composed exclusively of Calvinistic justices have decided in Muller vs. Oregon, a case testing an Oregon statute limiting the working day of women; particularly in the light of Puritan regulation of prices and wages? On what basis would Calvinists attack democracy and defend some other form of government? Should Calvinists oppose efforts to promote world peace and, if not, what methods should they use to promote it? There are difficult questions; nevertheless, it is Professor Singer who raises them in this reviewer’s mind, precisely because they are not dealt with adequately in his hook.

It is hoped that the volume on Christian orthodoxy which Professor Singer recognizes as being necessary to handle all of these questions will be forthcoming.

Calvinists will applaud and underscore two themes which consistently run through the book, viz., that man’s effort to find salvation and heaven through reform movements is futile, and that meaning and purpose in life are 10 be found in God’s Word.


1. Further evidence to support this contention is found in Professor Singer’s comments on the laissez faire doctrines of Adam Smith. Singer states that “[Adam Smith’s] assumption that each man in seeking his own good was, at the same time, aiding that of his fellowman was erroneous and at times, in an industrial society, quite dangerous.” (cf. p. 106)

2. Professor Singer recognizes this dilemma in the following passage: “The fact that these major reform endeavors have been based upon humanistic and naturalist philosophies of life does not mean that they were wrong in every aspect. Men may undertake biblically correct programs from very wrong, or unworthy, or insufficient motives. In the Providence of God the unregenerate carry out his will in society for the realization of his purposes even though they are consciously at war with the biblical message.” Having said this, however, it seems to this reviewer that Singer largely disregards this statement and proceeds to judge reform movements largely on the basis of who the reformers were rather than on the basis of the reform itself.