Years ago Francis Schaeffer, while teaching at Covenant Theological Seminary, was invited to lecture at Yale University. This was a great opportunity, and Schaeffer asked his colleagues to recommend Biblical topics and lecture ideas. One professor friend quickly urged him to give a gospel message on John 3:16. But Schaeffer decided against it, arguing that his humanistic and post-Christian audience would have an insufficient framework to understand the Christian message. Instead, he thought his message should be on Genesis 1 and should cover God’s sovereignty, the Biblical account of origins, and man’s creation in the image of God. Calling this “worldview evangelism,” Schaeffer insisted that this was the best way of opening contact with an ignorant, disillusioned, and skeptical audience. (Afterwards, Schaeffer added, the InterVarsity students could follow up by evangelizing their interested classmates.) Schaeffer’s choice of text and theme for the Yale lecture is intriguing—and it follows precisely the apologetic approach of the Apostle Paul.
Acts 17 records Paul’s famous discourse at Mars Hill, a classic of Christian apologetics. In Athens, Paul evangelized divergent audiences: religious (in the synagogue, v. 17a), economic (in the marketplace, v. 17b), academic (philosophers, v. 18), and political (at the Areopagus, v. 19). Paul’s appearance before the assembled Athenian leaders and intellectuals is reminiscent of Socrates’ defense at the Areopagus four centuries earlier, and Luke deliberately seems to make this parallel.
Paul’s audience clearly had a philosophical bent, and Luke underscores the presence of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. The Stoics were pantheistic and believed in a cosmic determinism, the need to cultivate virtue, and human freedom and self-sufficiency. Epicureans were polytheistic and materialistic, did not believe in the immortality of the soul, and are best remembered for their emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure. Elements of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy linger in intellectual circles today.
Paul’s audience had a surprisingly modern attitude. Athenians were religiously pluralistic, for instance, and Paul was distressed by the number of idols that he saw in the city (v. 16). The intellectuals at Mars Hill, Luke further emphasizes, spent all their time listening to novel theories, always hoping to hear “some new thing” (v. 21). Elsewhere Paul describes those of a similar mindset who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7 NKJV). That mindset fits twenty-first-century Americans as nicely as first-century Athenians.
The Areopagite worldview was humanistic, skeptical, relativistic, and pluralistic. All things were tolerated. The philosophers were titillated by the novel and innovative, and they reveled in their agnostic sophistry. (The fact that they erected a temple to the “unknown” God indicates a certain detached, postmodern snobbery.) Paul’s message was a frontal challenge to their worldview. A few of the Areopagites would believe (v. 34), but most sneered at his words.
Likewise, the worldview of our day is humanistic and modern (or postmodern). Rushdoony notes that modernism “is the belief in the relativism of all truth, coupled with an evolutionary concept of man and history.” Elsewhere he states that “the faith of the modern age is humanism, a religious belief in the sufficiency of man as his own lord, his own source of law, his own savior.”
So what does Paul say to his pluralistic, postmodern Greek listeners? He does not say, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!” His approach is quite different than the simplistic seeker-friendly slogans of watery postmodern evangelicalism. Instead, Paul presents a gospel-oriented apologetical message anchored in a Biblical philosophy of history. He offers a comprehensive worldview, stressing the sovereignty of God, His total control of life, and His providential governance of history. The message concludes with reference to Christ and His Resurrection, the movement of history to a final judgment, and an urgent call to repentance. But before issuing the call to repentance and salvation, the Apostle offers an overarching view of history. This would have been a stunning message for Areopagite intellectuals.
Paul versus the Postmodernists
After an initial point of contact, Paul stresses the absolute sovereignty of God (vv. 24–25). God was Lord of heaven and earth, having made all things. He was completely transcendent, needing nothing from men. (He certainly did not depend on temples built by the hands or on man’s idolatrous worship.)
Paul’s attention to God’s sovereignty establishes an essential starting point for historical consideration. Every view of history must begin with some foundation or starting point or organizing principle. This fundamental principle of sovereignty may be explicit or implicit, acknowledged or ignored—but it always exists. As a university student majoring in history and philosophy, I was intrigued by Rushdoony’s The Biblical Philosophy of History. For the first time I saw a philosophically astute, Biblically faithful, and comprehensive view of God’s sovereignty and history. And that is exactly how Paul starts with the Athenian philosophers.
Like Schaeffer at Yale, Paul also stressed creation (v. 24). The idea of creation ex nihilo was as objectionable to Hellenistic humanists two thousand years ago as it is to humanists today. But the essential principle of divine creation has been constantly affirmed by God’s people (Neh. 9:6). Early Christians instantly made it part of their corporate worship and testimony. In Acts 4:24, for instance, when Christians gave a spontaneous prayer of thanks—it was a corporate prayer that stressed God’s creative work, His absolute sovereignty, and His providential governance of history.
The Christian faith is not a discombobulated abstract and speculative faith. It is real and historical, emphasizing God’s work in time. The incarnation, Resurrection, and ascension affirm what Christ did in space and time. Christians further believe that time is linear, moving by God’s power from creation to a culminating point.
Paul’s address at Mars Hill also stresses a Biblical doctrine of man (v. 26). Since all men are formed from “one blood,” there is emphasis on a common humanity. This may have surprised Paul’s ethnocentric Greek audience, which was inclined to look down on outsiders as uncivilized barbarians. Paul’s message is straightforward: man was created by God, is totally dependent on God for life, is subject to judgment, and is called to repentance.
Paul’s introduction of Biblical anthropology at Mars Hill raises basic questions of history. How does the historian view man and human society? For humanists, man is essentially good, perhaps neutral, or, at worst, somewhat ignorant and in need of a little education. What kind of creature is man? Is he an economic creature (motivated primarily by money), a political creature (influenced largely by a quest for power), a sexual being (for whom sexuality is the dominant concern), or a religious creature? The Biblical perspective is clear. Man is made in the image of God, is a covenant breaker, is deserving of the wrath of God, and needs a savior.
Paul further emphasizes God’s providence (vv. 26, 28). God gives life and breath to all creation. The nations of earth are under the sovereign control of God, who has determined their times and the boundaries of their habitations. Ben Franklin evidenced this confidence in God’s providence at the Constitutional Congress, urging prayer and reminding delegates that “if a sparrow cannot fall without His notice, a nation cannot rise without His assistance.” The Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 5) has a masterful discussion of God’s providence, which is worthy of careful study. Some consider this a heavy theological doctrine and warn Christians about straying to the topic of providence, as it is frequently controversial. It is notable, however, that Paul introduced the topic of providence early in his Mars Hill discourse, even though speaking to a hostile and theologically green audience.
All theological systems and philosophies of history will have some doctrine of sovereignty, providence, and predestination. Years ago a nominal Christian student, having listened to my lecture on Reformation theology, expressed her disapproval of Calvin’s view of predestination. I knew that the student was interested in zodiac signs. “Why do you believe that the stars and signs influence your life,” I asked, “but refuse to believe that the sovereign God of the universe providentially controls the lives of His creatures?” Men will inevitably believe in some kind of providence. If they don’t believe in the providence and purpose of God, they will believe in a surrogate providence—the power of the zodiac, biological determinism, the omnipotent state, individual will to power, some impersonal “force,” etc.
God’s eternal decrees and providential governance of history is what gives history meaning. In The One and the Many, Rushdoony clearly states the Christian position: “[B]ecause the world is totally under God and is absolutely determined by Him, it is therefore a world with purpose and meaning. History is rescued from meaninglessness. It is no longer brute factuality, meaningless and uninterpreted facts. It has purpose, meaning and direction, because God created it in terms of His ultimate decree and purpose.”1
Paul’s message, finally, is Christocentric, eschatological, and evangelistic (vv. 30–31). The Apostle’s preaching in Athens had emphasized Jesus and the Resurrection (17:18), and at his closing at Mars Hill he returns to the same theme. History moves toward a final judgment, and this fact should motivate men to repent. In short, doctrine and history are not abstract considerations. They should drive men to repentance and salvation in Christ.
Paul versus the Humanists
In Romans 1:18–32, Paul further describes the humanist mindset. He may have been thinking of the self-confident philosophers who sat around Mars Hill eager to learn some new thing. Paul’s discussion provides an overview of man’s depravity, human cultures, and societal declension. It is, in short, an overview of humanism.
Paul argues that man and humanistic culture are in rebellion against God. Though men know certain things about God, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18 NKJV). They turn from the truth of God and “exchange [it] for the lie” (v. 25 NKJV). For Paul, there is a significant epistemological shift—as sinful man repudiates the truth of God that is everywhere present. There is also a significant moral shift, as man repudiates the truth in “unrighteousness.” It is for this reason that the sovereign God must first grant repentance to sinful man, which will lead in turn to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:25).
Humanistic culture and thought, furthermore, inevitably descend into idolatry. Sinful man falls into the grossest idolatry, exchanging the glory of God for the image of beasts and worshipping the creatures rather than the Creator. Even as these pretentious rebels are transformed into utter fools, they proclaim themselves to be wise.
Paul further argues that humanistic cultures descend into moral degradation. God gives these sinners over to their lusts and depravities so that they may be dishonored. Moral perversions are, themselves, a sign of God’s judgments. The larger, more systemic problem is rebellion against God, and perverse behavior is simply a symptom of a deeper spiritual crisis. Human corruption becomes increasingly manifest because God no longer restrains man’s fallen passions.
Paul further argues that humanist cultures become revolutionary and seditious. Sinful man does not want to retain the knowledge of God. So God gives these rebels over to a debased mind. They become grotesquely immoral, rebellious, hateful, and seditious. These reprobates know God’s judgments, know that they deserve death, and simply do not care. Humanistic systems will proclaim freedom and human autonomy but will inevitably end in degradation or in either anarchy or statism. Christ College, Lynchburg, Virginia, used to sell a sweatshirt with a great Christian message. It showed a Bible and a cross and had a memorable inscription: “God’s law or chaos!”
Finally, humanistic cultures will face the wrath and judgment of God. Paul’s burden in the first chapters of Romans was the same as in Acts 17. He wanted to show that every man is left without excuse, ready to face the wrath of God in judgment (Rom. 1:18). Depraved rebels, however, don’t care—not only doing these reprehensible things, but also “giv[ing] hearty approval to those who practice them” (1:32 NAS).
So, how would the humanists of Romans 1 do history? How faithfully would they write history books or teach children in their schools? They will do a poor job—since Scripture attests that they have already exchanged the truth of God for a lie, worshipped the creature, and given “hearty approval” to those defying God. Contemporary humanistic rebels will understand, write, and teach history from their core presuppositions, which are the presuppositions of rebellion and apostasy.
Cornelius Van Til advanced a system of Biblical and presuppositional apologetics, and his consistently Biblical insights can be applied to other disciplines, including history. Rushdoony’s The Nature of the American System opens with an explanation of a presuppositional methodology for history. “Behind the writing of history is a philosophy of history, and behind that philosophy of history are certain pre-theoretical and essentially religious presuppositions. There is no such thing as brute factuality, but rather only interpreted factuality. The historian’s report is always the report of a perspective, a context, a framework.”2
No man can approach history with absolute detachment and complete objectivity. “Neutralism,” Rushdoony observes in The Nature of the American System, “is one of the persistent errors of the modern era.”3 Modern man makes himself and his knowledge the sole source of autonomous authority, he continues, and man is the final “court of appeal.”
Man always has some perspective, and religious presuppositions are inevitable. What is unique about Christian historians and academics is that their fundamental commitments are (or should be) clear. They have a central commitment to Christ and Scripture. They know how history began and where it is headed. They know the Lord who guides history. As Rushdoony puts it in The Biblical Philosophy of History, “[T]he Christian accepts a world which is totally meaningful and in which every event moves in terms of God’s predestined purpose, and, when man accepts God as his Lord and Christ as his Savior, every event works together for good to him because he is now in harmony with that meaningful destiny.”4
In modern approaches to history, as in society, there is a repudiation of absolute truth—and certainly the truth of Scripture. There are two versions of this relativism. There is moral relativism, where fixed and enduring ethical standards are denied. There is epistemic relativism, where man denies fixed standards of truth.
As Rushdoony notes, “[A] basic premise of law and society today is relativism.” For the Christian, however, “an absolute law set forth by the Absolute God separates good from evil and protects good.” Biblical orthodoxy directly challenges the new creed of humanistic relativism.
In 1989 I defended my Ph.D. dissertation in history. The dissertation focused on Harry Rimmer, a prominent early-twentieth-century Presbyterian apologist who was a pioneering creationist. During the middle of the dissertation defense, one of my liberal professors jumped up from the table with a clenched fist and declared, “There are no absolutes!” This was, of course, a silly and inherently self-contradictory statement. Unfortunately, many historians operate under this assumption: there are no absolutes.
Man cannot live in the absence of absolute standards. Having rejected the truth of God, man will create or embrace some surrogate authority. Freed from God’s authority, man will submit himself to any and every kind of foolishness.
A friend of mine once served as the headmaster of a Christian school. The school had a crisis one day when officials realized that someone had “dirtied” on the floor of the boys’ room. The circumstantial evidence pointed to a persistent little troublemaker, but he had steadfastly denied his involvement. (He even put his little hand on a Bible and swore that he was innocent.)
My friend called the little reprobate in for an interview. “Do you know why I called you in?” he asked. The youngster knew that it was for something that had happened in the bathroom. “Before we begin,” my friend continued, “have you ever heard of DNA evidence?” Somewhat nervously, the boy admitted that he had. “You know, don’t you,” my friend continued, “that DNA evidence can be very accurate.” Now panicky, the boy agreed. “So,” my friend concluded, “Isn’t there something you’d like to say?” At this point, the little boy confessed to what he’d done.
I was astonished by the story. The little fellow was in a Christian school—and had put his hand on the Bible and lied through his teeth. But he was forced to confess when confronted by the presumed infallibility of scientific evidence. That is the new authority of our age.
Because all standards and truths are relative, modern culture will stress toleration. Everything is to be accepted or tolerated. The new creed of our age is “Diversity is good.” This meaningless and content-void slogan is trumpeted everywhere, including billboards and bumper stickers.
Some diversity is glorious. We know that Christ died to redeem a people from every nation and tongue, and throughout eternity a diverse group of saints will bless the Savior. I suspect that modernists celebrate diversity for different reasons, as a way of gaining acceptance for heterodox thinking and immoral behavior.
No one, of course, will tolerate absolute diversity. Toleration has its limits. Few people would be so committed to religious diversity that they’d allow the renewal of Aztec human sacrifices. The key question is this: What are the boundaries of freedom within a system?
For many modernists, pluralism is a positive norm provided that one does not violate the humanistic and statist creed. In modern America, most faiths are tolerated as long as there is recognition that the state is sovereign. Two centuries ago, Rousseau hinted at the direction of modern pluralism in a discussion of civil religion. He was happy to encourage religion, so long as it recognized the sovereignty of the state, taught good morals, and advocated toleration for all other religions. But he couldn’t tolerate a religion that taught absolute principles. “Wherever theological intolerance is admitted, it must inevitably have some civil effect; and as soon as it has such an effect, the Sovereign is no longer sovereign even in the temporal sphere: thenceforth priests are the real masters, and kings only their ministers … [T]olerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship. But whoever dares to say ‘Outside the Church is no salvation,’ ought to be driven from the State …”5 Those advocating a transcendent view of God and the importance of salvation, then, are a challenge to the state, are guilty of heresy, and cannot be tolerated. In a pluralistic society, Rushdoony notes, man cannot “be under one law except by virtue of imperialism.” The new pluralism inevitably leads to statism.
Ultimately, modern humanists have a religious agenda. Because man is a spiritual creature, made in the image of God, he must have some focus of worship. Having set aside the true God, he will look for surrogate deities. As Rushdoony puts it, “The alternative to ‘In God we trust’ is ‘In man we trust,’ or in reason, science, the experimental system, an elite, or some like entity. In any and every case it is a religious affirmation. The presuppositions of all man’s thinking are inescapably religious, and they are never neutral.”
All modernistic and postmodern humanistic systems of thought will eventually disintegrate into meaninglessness. “When man makes himself and his reason god over creation,” Rushdoony explains, “he thereupon destroys all meaning in creation and leaves himself a chained and gibbering baboon, sitting in terror on a wired electric chair in the midst of a vast universe of nothingness.”
The Christian Opportunity
Christians should be ready to confront the challenge of humanism and postmodernism. Scripture has given us a clear charge in confronting the idolatries of our age. The Great Commission gives a comprehensive task—evangelizing the nations in terms of all that Christ has commanded. As Paul puts it, “[We are] casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 NKJV).
Christians shouldn’t worry about the crises of the modern age—be they economic, political, religious, ecological, and educational. As Rushdoony observed some forty years ago, “Modern age has lost even the most elementary abilities … namely the ability to discipline its children and maintain its authority. Without this, a culture is soon dead.” He says, “The modern age gives every evidence of approaching death. This is a cause, not for dismay, but for hope. The death of modernity makes possible a new culture, and such an event is always, however turbulent, an exciting and challenging venture. The dying culture loses its will to live. A new culture, grounded in a new faith, restores that will to live even under very adverse circumstances.”6
Romans 1offers a grim overview of human culture and thought. The first chapter doesn’t appear to leave much hope for the future. Yet the conclusion of Romans offers much encouragement. Paul tells the Romans that “[t]he God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:20 NKJV). The great Epistle concludes with the confidence that the gospel will go to all nations—leading to the obedience of faith (16:26).
From the Areopagus where Paul spoke, one has a sweeping view of Athens, including the historic Acropolis with its magnificent structures and temples. One could have seen the Temple of Athena Nike (“Athena Victorious”)—indicating the power and ultimate triumph of the patron goddess of Athens. It seems strange that Paul would, in that pagan setting, announce the conclusion of history at the judgment of Christ. But he did—and it was a key part of his apologetic.
Of all the speeches given over the centuries at Mars Hill, someone recently commented, only Paul’s remains. The Apostle’s words, recorded in Acts 17, point to God’s ultimate purposes in and over history through Jesus Christ. Those words are engraved on a bronze plaque and are bolted to the bedrock at the Areopagus.
1 Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many (n.p.: Craig press, 1971), 359.
2 Rousas John Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2001), 1.
3 Ibid., 77
4 R. J. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Vallecito, CA: Ross House books, rp 2000), 7.
5 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book IV.
6 R. J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many (n.p.: Craig Press, 1971), 370.