“You can’t identify with these people in any way. They may have some good ideas, but their presuppositions are contrary to Scripture.”
Throughout my career as a missionary I have often been criticized by other missionaries and well-meaning Christians, in general, for cooperating and identifying with groups and movements that are not openly Christian, or not openly Protestant. Such criticism was mainly directed at my association with the Libertarian movement in Eastern Europe; but I have gotten flak for my support for political protest movements, for my work with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers, and for my defense of civil rights organizations in Eastern Europe.
In each case, my critics have agreed that the specific ideas and the goals of these organizations were good, but since their religious presuppositions were non-Biblical, I shouldn’t associate with them in any way. Some said that they couldn’t see how that was “helping the gospel,” and some believed I was diluting the “simple gospel message” by mixing it with rival ideas—libertarian, civil rights, political protests, and others. If the other side wasn’t explicitly and self-consciously Christian, I had no business associating, identifying, or working with them.
Why Not Work with Unbelievers?
Others, more evangelism-minded, were open to see the evangelistic value in mixing with unbelievers, but only in its individualistic aspect: “Getting involved gives you the opportunity to witness to these people, right?” The political or ideological involvement was without any value, in their view, except as a hook and bait to get people to listen to my “evangelism.” (I encountered a similar “evangelistic” view when I was told by a student in a prestigious university that he enrolled only to have access to other students, and that he didn’t really care for the studies.)
Neither group saw my support for those causes or groups as an integral part of my evangelism, nor as following logically from my theological beliefs, even if both groups acknowledged that the causes were good, and that these unbelievers I worked with had “some good ideas.”
The problem with these attitudes, of course, is that they are ultimately dualistic. They create a dualistic tension between the “religious” message we carry in our evangelism—what is commonly but incorrectly called “the gospel”—and our political, social, economic, and other engagements. The dichotomy created between “the gospel” and what is “not the gospel” has created more problems for the church than any other false doctrine. It has made the church live in a state of constant schizophrenia where Christians are always told that the Bible has an answer to all questions, and then are told that most questions don’t matter anyway, or that the gospel is not ultimately concerned with them. This schizophrenia has been the reason for the decline of the influence of Christianity in the West, for it is always suicidal, and it can never build a civilization, nor exercise long-term influence on civilization.
But there’s another problem with the position of such critics, and it has to do with the epistemological issues of the gospel, i.e., the question, “How does man know what he knows?” Or, to rephrase the question to apply to our discussion, “What is the ultimate source of all good ideas?” Why do these unbelievers have these good ideas? Is it possible for good ideas to come from bad presuppositions or beliefs? If every good gift comes from the Father of Lights (James 1:17), does the same apply to the good ideas our pagan neighbors have about the world? And if these pagan neighbors have some good gift given to them, why was it given to them, providentially, and how should we use that good gift for the glory of God instead of letting it go to waste?
Where Do Ideas Come From?
Answering such questions is critical for spreading the gospel; for in our preaching, we need to be aware of the nature of the contact between the gospel and the state of mind of our listeners. While the gospel can be presented in many different forms, and the Bible contains many different ways to present the gospel, certain wisdom is needed for us to decide what the specific situation requires. Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that he “became all things to all men” does not mean that he became lawless, but that he adapted his preaching to respond to the specific demands of the mind of a lawless person.
The independent existence and genesis of ideas and ideologies has long been part of the preferred epistemology of many anti-Christian intellectuals. H. G. Wells started his The Outline of History, a massive 1,300-page work designed to revolutionize the study of history along new lines, with the claim that “Human history is in essence a history of ideas.” While the beginning of mankind was purely material and evolutionist, he gradually developed the importance of ideas as the narrative proceeded, until mankind reached what Wells calls “the liberation of human thought” in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when ideas were able to assume a historical existence of their own, and then ideas shaped the world. In Wells’ view of history, man will evolve to a point where he can throw off the chains of his material being, produce his own ideas which will empower him to face the material world, and reshape it after his own image. The ultimate expression of man’s freedom, in fact, of man’s very essence, is to build his own ideology for action; and, therefore, the history of mankind is in essence that of man employing his own ideas to face an impersonal, chaotic, indifferent, or even hostile world of nature and society.
Wells didn’t say how ideas originate and what makes man or his culture change their ideas. Ideas somehow “assumed” that historical existence of their own, but we don’t know why and how that happened. One may suppose that it was the evolutionary development of man that made this happen. In that case, man can’t really change his ideas, he has to wait for the right evolutionary conditions to come around. But Wells was not a believer in waiting; he did advocate self-conscious change of ideas in his other book, The New World Order. However, he didn’t say why man would change his ideas, what should motivate him to do it, and how he would know which ideas are better than others.
Wells’ view was only a reaction to the crass materialism he saw in Marxism and its view that the ultimate causes for historical change were strictly material: genetics and the development of the tools of production. The thought that man was determined strictly by material factors was terrifying to the mind of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century British intellectuals. This led many of them—including Wells himself—to occultism. Occultism was not simply a pastime, it was a self-conscious choice of philosophy to oppose the materialism of continental thought. But the result was no better than what that materialism created. Neither Wells nor his fellow British intellectuals were able to create any coherent understanding of history, or human action, or social change.
Marx, of course, was wrong. Materialism—whether “metaphysical” or “dialectical”—can’t explain human action and historical change. But neither can philosophical idealism. Neither of them looks at man as a self-conscious, acting agent; both view him as a product of impersonal forces. Therefore, neither can be the foundation for evangelism, for evangelism would have to be a process of conditioning, not an appeal to man’s conscience.
Faith Is What Counts
What Wells missed—and what many Christian theologians and missionaries also miss today—is that ideas themselves are a product of something deeper and more fundamental, something that goes to the heart of man’s very being as created in the image of God, something that defines man entirely before God and before his fellow men: faith. Contrary to the accepted wisdom today,ideas do not have consequences. They are consequences themselves, of a creed, of afaith statement that determines the very foundational tenets of man’s interpretation of the world. Faith is what man accepts deeply in his being by ethical choice, without questioning it, without proving it, without doubting its veracity—and that includes any faith, not only that of the Christian, but that of the hardcore atheist as well. Man may have rational and logical explanations for his faith; he may also be able to provide physical proofs for its truthfulness; but in the final account, it is not the rationality or the physical proofs that make him accept his faith, but his self-conscious ethical choice.
In short,ideas do not have consequences, faith does. And ideas themselves are the consequences of our faith.
It is, then, obvious that the ideologies of men are simply the tip of the iceberg, supported by deeply-held faith, by an ethical system which interprets the world around man and lays the foundation for all his definitions and logic.
From a Christian perspective, therefore, we should expect that the redeemed man, having self-consciously chosen to believe in the God of the Bible, will naturally tend to develop a practical ideology which is “good,” i.e., directed to favor the right practical causes in every area of life. But then the question remains: Why do some pagans have “good ideas”? If they have self-consciously adopted the wrong faith, wouldn’t that mean that they would tend to develop wrong practical ideologies, and therefore won’t have any “good ideas”? To what can we ascribe such inconsistency?
We can ascribe it to a problem the unredeemed man faces every day, in every place, in all of his endeavors, intellectual or practical: his intellectual schizophrenia.
On one hand, the unredeemed man earnestly desires a world without moral responsibility, and therefore without God. To do that, he needs to postulate such a world; to negate the possibility for it in his mind. He chooses to believe in a world with no God. It is an ethical choice, not determined by rational reasoning or physical proofs, but by the self-conscious adoption of ethical terms, of a system that discerns good from evil. And the evil is God and His very existence, as well as His moral demands of mankind. (Ever wondered why “agnostics” are always so sure that Christianity is evil?) Once he has adopted these ethical presuppositions for his thinking, he tries to develop his practical ideology as a consequence of those presuppositions. At the end, we have all the different kinds of ideologies and “religions” that come from the logical working out of the pagan presuppositions of the unredeemed man.
Believers in Spite of Themselves
On the other hand, the unredeemed man can’t avoid the testimony of God that the creation around him is giving him. This testimony can be in the rational conclusions from a simple passive observance of the universe. But even stronger and more compelling, it is in the practical working out of his own ideologies, based on his own presuppositions: They don’t work. No ideology that is consistently based on anti-Christian presuppositions can ultimately work towards the professed goals of man. Whether it is scientific theory, or political science, or systems of organization of production, or monetary policy, or educational programs, or anything else, it will always produce results that can be rationally and experimentally proven to be inferior to the situation prior to the implementation of the ideology. At the end, man and his culture end up dumber, poorer, disorganized, etc. To produce the right practical results, the unredeemed man has to dig out the right presuppositions about God and the world that he knows deep in his heart to be true (Rom. 1:18ff.), and think and act on their foundation, in order to achieve his goals.
As R. J. Rushdoony said when commenting on “The Epistemological Man,”
Autonomous man is aware of the deadly impasse that his epistemology leads him into. From ancient times he has been aware of the fact that the world of experience can not be accounted for or trusted in terms of his premise of autonomy. The moral fact that governs the situation is that man prefers to be an idiot god to being a learned man under God. As a result, he clings to his epistemology for theoretical reasons while for practical purposes assuming that the world is undergirded by God and His sovereign decree.1
This statement explains all the inconsistencies in the thinking and the practice of the unredeemed man. He is eager to have success in his endeavors, but he can’t achieve that success as long as he operates—intellectually and practically—in terms of his underlying pagan faith. So he tacitly abandons his faith and for certain purposes readopts the Biblical faith—or at least steals its presuppositions—and acts and thinks on it, in order to succeed.
But then, in this very “betrayal” of his faith, for practical purposes, he is caught in a trap, for the “betrayal” itself testifies against him, for God.
And it is in this very situation of producing a self-convicting where the Christian evangelist must catch him. Just as Paul in Acts caught the Greeks in their attempts to find God (contrary to their philosophies where God was either non-existent or unknowable), and in their poetry (where God was postulated as the Father of all men in order to produce unity of mankind), our best tactic for evangelism is to catch the unbelievers right in their “good ideas,” and in their good practices, for it is right there where the best testimony is given against their own pagan faith.
When we see an unbeliever devoted to certain good causes—be it free markets, or trustee family, or entrepreneurship, or anti-communism, or low taxes, or scientific and technological progress, or charity work—we know that that unbeliever has tacitly returned to the right presuppositions about God and the world, in order to achieve his goals, or to find personal fulfillment. He is testifying against himself in that very moment!And we won’t find a better opportunity for evangelism than cooperating with the unbeliever in the very moment he is testifying against his own faith through his ideas or practice. Those good ideas and that good practice can’t have any other faithfoundation but the presuppositions God has placed in his heart through the testimony of the creation itself (Rom. 1:19–20). Our job is to express those presuppositions in words.
1. R. .J. Rushdoony, The Word of Flux (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  2002), 49.