Resources

Autonomy

By R. J. Rushdoony
April 01, 1998

The goal of man in his sin was and is autonomy, to be his own ultimate, his own god. This meant determining, or knowing for himself, what is good and evil in terms of purely personal criteria. This has come to mean a number of things, i.e., power for power's sake; sex for radically experiential reasons without reference to law, morality, or the personality of the other person; speed for the sake of speed; and so on and on. One aspect of this exaltation of autonomy has been art for art's sake. Leo Tolstoy attacked this bitterly but falsely in that his view was one governed by moral considerations, not by religion, not by theology. However important moral considerations are, in Tolstoy's hands they were separated from theology and were humanistic. We now have science for science's sake, and the theological questions raised about certain types of investigations are seen as intrusive and extraneous. Science as its own justification is now a deeply entrenched practice, and any questions raised against it are held to be ignorant and retrogressive.

Robert R. Preato has observed,

The exaggerated and distorted form of the Aesthetic doctrine declared that art is self-sufficient and autonomous, serving no other purpose, be it moral, religious or political. Nor should art be judged according to scientific laws or doctrines. This was the doctrine expounded by Theophile Gautier in the preface to his novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, published in 1835: "Art may not serve any other values than the aesthetic without damaging its aesthetic value." (Robert R. Preato, "Whistler's Aesthetics and Japanese Design," in Gary Levine, Robert R. Preato, Francine Tyler: La Femme, The Influence of Whistler and Japanese Print Masters on American Art 1880-1917, p. 66. New York, NY: Grand Central Art Galleries, 1983).

This quest for autonomy is basic to what is known as "modern" art. It is separated from any association with religion, meaning, coherence, culture, history, and all else. It is the autonomous expression of the artist, and the more autonomous it is, the more successful is the composition.

Art for art's sake is an expression of original sin, of man's insistence on autonomy from God. It is an aspect of the premise, man for man's sake. Not surprisingly, almost all people today expect to go to heaven, if they believe in a heaven at all. After all, by what standard can they be excluded? They may be dissatisfied with themselves, but God has no right to be, because man is an autonomous creation, which means that none in heaven, hell, or earth has any valid ground for rejecting them. One spoiled modern man confessed once when drunk to his wife of his involvement in various evils. She already knew him to be a sadistic torturer and a depraved man. When later, she reproached him for his evils, his answer was that none had a right to judge him except himself. This is the logic of autonomy. Every man becomes his own god and universe, and no one else has the right to judge him. Jesus Christ requires judgment according to God's law: "judge righteous judgment" (Jn. 7:24), but his requirement that our judgments avoid the personal for the Biblical criterion are passed over and, "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Mt. 7:1, 2), a requirement that our standard for judgment be not personal, is routinely misused to mean nojudgment.

Antinomianism is related to this quest for autonomy because God's law is, among other things, a criterion for judgment. The commandments against theft and false witness (Dt. 5:19, 20), for example, mean that no autonomy of action is possible. Because there is no autonomy in these spheres, or any other, there is no immunity from judgment.

Autonomy means deliverance from judgment. It also means autonomy, ostensibly, from God. The autonomy of reason from God is basic to rationalism. Both its concepts of reason and God are false. For rationalism, reason replaces God as the judge of all things, and "the bar of reason" gives us a new judgment seat for all things.

Genesis 3:5 makes clear that man's original sin, to be his own god and his autonomous source of determination, is his continuing offense. Romans 5:20 tells us that "the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." As Herman N. Ridderbos observed, the law increases sin in fallen man by bringing out his resistance, fury, and hatred of God:

The law provokes sin, for sin shoots forth like a bright flame when the law is applied to forbid it. Sin properly manifests itself in its very nature whenever the law raises its voice. Paul discusses this fact in a remarkable way in Romans 7 (RSV): "Our sinful passions [were] aroused by the law" (v. 5), and further on in the same connection: "What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!. . . But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead; I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived. . . For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me" (vv. 7-11). (Herman N. Ridderbos: When the Time Had Fully Come, p. 67. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1957).

The Law exposes the heart of sin, its enmity towards and hatred of God. The sinner is not allowed by the law to live hidden from the light of the law and its exposure, so the law compels man to see that God knows he is a sinner who deserves the death penalty. The law reveals the penalty, but even more its words point to the greater power of grace.

Autonomy is a heady doctrine. For Edward Carnell, his autonomous reason meant that all deities and revelations were under his judgment. His rationalism made him god over God.

Cornelius Van Til, in discussing S. U. Zuidema's analysis of the philosophy of William of Ockham, pointed out that Zuidema saw that for Ockham man was ultimate: "Ockham's god is made in the image of the 'free man,' whose image and whose nostalgia is lawlessness" (Cornelius Van Til: The New Hermeneutic, p. 183. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974). Because autonomy means literally self-law, autonomy and antinomianism (meaning against law, i.e., God's law), autonomy is the logical goal of man in his revolt against God. Autonomy is manifest in many ways: in the man's revolt against God, in the woman's revolt against God and men, in children's revolt against discipline and authority, and so on. In every sphere of life and thought, autonomy invites anarchy. Van Til rightly observed that the choice is between autonomy and theonomy, self-law and God's law.

In the twentieth century, churches have succumbed to autonomous spirituality, divorced from God's law on the one hand, and autonomous rationalism. Creatures made by God argue solemnly on the "proofs" of God when the very idea that anything can exist without God is ludicrous. Instead of autonomous man, the sovereign God must be the starting point of all thinking. Autonomous reason ends in irrationalism and blasphemy.


Topics: Philosophy, Science, R. J. Rushdoony, Media / Arts

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

More by R. J. Rushdoony