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Rationalism and the Chain of Being

By R. J. Rushdoony
January 01, 1998

Very early, a deadly notion from Hellenic rationalism entered into the Christian church, namely, the transfer of the idea of the good from ethics to metaphysics. In terms of this, sin became a thinness of being. In the supposed Great Chain of Being, sin was at the bottom of the chain. Instead of being moral opposites, good and evil were metaphysical opposites. Gnosticism carried this notion to strange and fantastic conclusions. In scholastic philosophy, evil is seen as a thinness of being, and, for Dante, in The Divine Comedy in the last round of the ninth circle of hell, where Lucifer is, all are ice-bound.

There is a world of danger in this view, because the concept of the Great Chain of Being means a continuity of being; it means that both God and man share a common being and therefore are open in their rationality one to another. In terms of Biblical faith, there are two kinds of being, created and uncreated, creation and the God of creation. The mind of God is uncreated, man’s mind is created. Because man is a creature in all his being, he bears the stamp of the Creator, even to his image (Gen. 1:26-28). Man’s being is discontinuous with God’s while imaging it with respect to God’s communicable (but not incommunicable) attributes.

To return to the notion that sin and virtue are metaphysical facts, this means that sin leads a person into a thinness of being, and then into virtual or actual non-being. This idea is a useful one for those who wish to dispose of Hell: those in Hell are fading away in their being into non-being and are destined to disappear. But sin is not a slenderness of being but the willful transgression of the law of God. Sin is thus not the metaphysical wasting away of man but his moral rebellion against God and his law. It is a moral, not a metaphysical, declension.

This Hellenic view has important considerations for rationalism. The rationalist does not self-consciously accept all aspects of his Hellenic inheritance. Being non-historical in his approach, he assumes that his reason has all the attributes that philosophy in his day ascribes to it. It is, for example, a shock to read Aristotle after Aquinas and to realize that the Aristotle we know is a very different person from the ancient Greek, a somewhat distant relative, in fact.

In either an early or a later form, however, rationalism presupposes a continuity of being between God, or the ultimate ideas or forms, and the mind of man. It is this impersonal continuity of being that is the mainstay of rationalism and its source of truth. The rationalist does not posit a discontinuity, and, with the rare one who might, he does not see this human rationality as fallen. To do so would destroy his rationalism.

Now if there is a stream of continuity in all of history, that stream, will, in its pseudo-Christian forms, absorb the incarnation of Jesus Christ into its continuity. The results of this absorption are startling. The historical Jesus becomes less important than his continuity in some mystical form. This can take several forms. The sacrament of communion can outweigh the historical atonement. Salvation, instead of being from sin, becomes deification, theosis. The historical incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ is seen as continuing mystically in his church, and so on and on. In Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism, we have varying forms of these beliefs. They represent the transmutation of Christianity from a Hebraic to an alien form. The necessity of Scripture gives way to alien and rationalistic premises which insist on the necessity of the church.

In the Greek Chain of Being idea, human autonomy is possible in a way that it is not under the doctrine of creation. Creationism sees the creation of man and of all things else as declaring the total and absolute dependence of all things on God. Having been created out of nothing, and having brought nothing to their making, all creatures are totally dependent on God and totally subject to his sovereign predestinating will. In the Great Chain of Being, all creatures and beings share in God’s divinity and are aspects of a common being. Men can rise or fall on the Great Chain of Being, and man’s use of Reason determines his status. Man is thus essentially autonomous, and he can rise or fall in the chain as his Reason determines. The determining force is thus not the personal God but a common and impersonal Reason, available alike to God and to man.

The universe of the Great Chain of Being is open in that there is no absolute and determining God over all. Predestination then cannot be a seriously held idea if one is logical. It is an open universe in that man’s Reason can penetrate all things determinatively. The rational is the real in this kind of world. But it is a closed world to the God of Scripture, because he is excluded in the name of rationality from the spheres of philosophy and history. Rationalism can "prove" God but its god is always a dead one, a figment of man’s imagination and Reason. In the earlier years of modern philosophy, men sought to "prove" the existence of God. The logic of their thinking came into focus with Hegel and after Hegel, the philosopher in his thinking as the actual God of being. Nietzsche clearly saw himself as the new god but apparently did not like what he saw!


Topics: Reformed Thought, Philosophy

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.

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