A Review of Michael W. Kelley's The Impulse of Power: Formative Ideals of Western Civilization, Contra Mundum Books, Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, ISBN: 0-9637768-1-9, $19.00.
This is the best new book I have read this year. Kelley is by no means a new author (consult his On Stone or Sand: The Ethics of Christianity, Capitalism, and Socialism and The Burden of God: Studies in Wisdom and Civilization from the Book of Ecclesiastes), but this is a more sweeping work revealing the author's keen grasp of the philosophy of history and particularly of Western civilization. Although the work cites R. J. Rushdoony but twice and Cornelius Van Til not at all, the author is clearly operating within the ambit of a Calvinistic presuppositionalism, including the recognition of the necessity of the cultural mandate to be effected according to explicit scriptural teaching.
Kelley posits the roots of Western civilization in the Homeric and Platonic world of ancient Greece, but unlike many Christians and previous generations and today will brook no compromise with this "enlightenment paganism" as a valid expression of culture. He shrewdly observes that today's increasing calls for a return to the medieval synthesis of Christian and classical civilization is misdirected: "Should we accept the argument of those who wish to restore the displaced ideals represented by the medieval synthesis of Christianity and Humanism? Can such salvage operations succeed? Is it possible to remake Western civilization on the same basis from which it first sprang up? If so, why should one accept that it will turn out better the second time?" Kelley's answer is unequivocal: "There are but two options available: that which comes from God and His revealed Word, or that which arises from man's sin-darkened imagination" (pp. 16-17).
Kelley observes Plato's attempt to depersonalize the pagan religion of the Homeric era, replacing the gods of ancient Greece with an abstractionist rationalism whereby the entire universe would be explained by recourse to human reason: "[I]t was more than just a struggle between science and religion. Their [the Greek philosophers'] interest was to shift the locus of ordering power from the gods to the mind of man, so that the mind of man becomes the source of order and is able to govern reality according to the principles innate in the reasoning power of man alone" (p. 56, emphasis in original). For Plato and the other Greek philosophers, the creation of culture was to be exclusively the work of the intellectually gifted, the philosopher-kings especially endowed with rational faculties capable of reshaping all of society and life.
The Medieval Synthesis
Kelley moves on to discuss "The Grand Synthesis" of the medieval world: pagan classicism and historic Christianity. Like Christopher Dawson, Alister McGrath, and other deeply informed observers of this era, Kelley is aware of the dominating influence of monasticism on it. It was not merely one religio-cultural factor among many, but in many ways was the dominating feature of medieval life. Kelley posits the origins of the monastic ideal in certain aspects of pagan Greek philosophy, and correctly suggests that "Christianity's eventual triumph over the ancient pagan world was tragically undermined by an opposing development, the incursion into the life of Christianity of a deeply rooted pagan outlook that took hold as monasticism" (p. 83). The Platonic dualism, according to which matter, material substance, and the things of this world were considered vastly inferior to the world of eternal Forms and Ideas, heavily influenced Christian monasticism, as did the Gnostic heresy. Further, monasticism carried on that aspect of the pagan Greek philosophical tradition which divided humanity into the elite and the masses: for Plato and company, the philosopher-kings comprised the elite, while for the monastics, those who separated themselves from the "world" and devoted themselves exclusively to a pious devotion to God constituted, in fact, the Christian elite. Kelley notes, moreover, how the ancient Greek notion of man's coming to the fullest measure of his humanity in civic or political association was perpetuated in the monastic ideal of the Christian elite communing together in the monastery (p. 87). Even St. Augustine, while recognizing many flaws of the patristic monastic order and, certainly, the pagan heresies from which it sprang, did not break decisively with this monastic ideal and thus bequeathed to the later Middle Ages, along with his sound, Biblical theology, a certain measure of monastic paganism. Kelley is surely correct, therefore, in labeling monasticism "a false Christianity" given virtually free reign until the Protestant Reformation (pp. 82-83).
In what is surely one of the most valuable features of the book, Kelley outlines the provenance of ecclesiocentrism — the notion that the institutional church should govern and dominate all of life. Like others before him, he recognizes that the idea of the church in the West was patterned largely after imperial Rome and that, therefore, its origin is not Biblical but pagan (p. 116). In addition, however, Kelley discloses that this imperial institutionalization of the church is essentially an ideology of power. The architects of patristic and medieval ecclesiocentrism were interested in employing the church as an instrument in giving meaning to life. Not so much God and the Bible, but the institutional church itself, furnished life's meaning. God and His Word were remote and proximate, while the church was near and immediate. Kelley declares that to use the language of church-state conflict to describe the great medieval clash of religious powers is anachronistic:
The dichotomy of church and state belongs to a later period of history. It is out of place in the medieval view of things. Instead the dispute was over which side — clerical or laical — of the Ecclesia Universalis [church universal] had been granted the Divine right legally, morally, even politically, to regiment the life and behavior of each and every member, and to decide upon the uses to be made of every institutional arrangement of that society. (p. 119)
The great conflict, therefore, was not between church and state, but between which part of the church (for the emperor was surely its leading lay member) would control all of Christian society. Like Rushdoony, Kelley perceives that this medieval ecclesiocentrism errs on the side of the "one" in the age-old problem of the one and the many: the important thing in medieval life was unity, with no room for diversity as a harmonizing counterpart to that unity. Likewise, Kelley implicitly manifests Abraham Kuyper's understanding of sphere sovereignty, which was almost totally obscure in medieval ecclesiocentrism (p. 122). Kelley's explanation of how the early church gradually degenerated into such an ecclesiocentric state, including its transformation from a Hebraic understanding to an Hellenic understanding, is choice (pp. 128-130). Furthermore, the author observes the irony of much of the Latin church in its treatment of the Old Testament: it retained or perpetuated the structure of the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood, which were designed to be replaced by the universal priesthood of the New Testament era, while the church abandoned the moral and judicial dimensions of the Mosaic law which were never set aside by the New Testament. In other words, the Roman church retained the part of the Old Testament that was designed to be abandoned, and abandoned that part which was designed to be retained (pp. 136-137).
Next, Kelley exposes and criticizes scholasticism, the chief academic expression of the synthesis between Biblical Christianity and classical culture. The scholastics attempted to maintain and defend historic Christianity within an Aristotelian framework and epistemology, but this synthesis pushed this version of Christianity almost to a breaking point:
This created enormous tension, for Christianity and this pagan culture were deeply at odds, not simply due to the fact that this classical world of thought was a product of the old polytheism and Christianity was monotheistic, but because they had contradicting explanations on just about everything, most especially the claims to possess the solution to the problem of human existence. (p. 159)
There were therefore no distinctly Christian schools, only humanistic schools with heavy doses of Christianity tacked on for good measure. This was possible in the Aristotelian scheme of things, and from this Thomas Aquinas hammered out his famed (and lethal) nature-grace distinction: that in most matters of human life and understanding, man can rely on his own innate resources, but in certain "higher" matters (the doctrine of the Trinity, personal salvation, etc.), he must rely on the special revelation of the Bible. This epistemological dualism eventually undercut Christianity altogether, in the Italian Renaissance and, especially, the European Enlightenment (p. 169). If Christianity and Biblical revelation are not necessary for a correct understanding of many areas of life and thought, why should they be necessary for any at all?
In his chapters dealing successively with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism, Kelley addresses the "new paganism," the revival of ancient, pagan Greek ideas. Contrary to a great deal of scholarly opinion, the author correctly observes that the Renaissance was not merely instrumental, that is, it was not merely about the recovery of ancient texts, cogent rhetoric, and new methods of scholarly investigation (contra McGrath). Rather, its impulse was deeply pagan, and, in particular, its program was driven by a lust for elitist political power. Kelley thus holds that the modern age did not begin with the modern European Enlightenment, but with the Italian Renaissance and its distinctly anti-Christian character (p. 197). Here he states how greatly medievalism failed the Faith. For, "when men were ready to break definitively from their [monastic and hierarchical] mold, no real Christian-Biblical alternative was available to direct the Western civilization to more genuinely Christian pathways. This void allowed men to turn back enthusiastically to the ideas of ancient pagan Greece and Rome, almost emptying the developing culture of anything discernibly Christian" (p. 197-198).
The European Enlightenment
The European Enlightenment carried forward the Renaissance program by increasingly locating ultimate authority of arbitration in human reason. While, the author asserts, modern science and all of its benefits would have been impossible apart from Christian presuppositions, the early modern scientists quickly abandoned any genuinely Biblical approach to their discipline:
Everything that could not be objectively measured or numbered was viewed as an intrusion from an alien sphere. In his quest for knowledge, man must eliminate all that is subjective and non-material. This included God, for God is not someone or something that comes within the realm of tangible observation. The only place God retained in the thought of modern scientific man, and this lasted until the rise of evolution in the nineteenth century, was the hypothetical place He was thought to occupy in the necessary order of cause and effect." (p. 228)
God was simply a "limiting concept.
The startling technological and scientific achievement of the Enlightenment led its intellectual elite to presume that the same successes accomplished on what were thought to be purely rationalistic grounds would serve as a pattern for social engineering:
[K]nowledge not only meant power over the forces (a Newtonian term) of nature, but power over men and society. Even as man can engineer the workings of nature to benefit his life, so, too, he can superintend the workings of society to create better order and harmony between human beings. Indeed, in the new Enlightenment faith, the two were viewed as being necessarily interrelated. Baconian optimism allowed modern man to think that he could erect a culture and civilization from a blueprint discovered in nature by an infallible method of reasoning. (p. 259)
Human society, like the material universe, is one great machine.
The Romantic Revolt
Then came the revolt in the form of Romanticism. For if nature were effectively reduced to a methodical, mechanized system whose structure was immediately grasped by human reason, and if man himself participates in this nature as an agent in reordering this vast machine for human purposes, how can the human mind itself be anything other than part of this machine? Late eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism constituted a reaction against the Enlightenment's rationalistic mechanization of life. While the Enlightenment exalted reason, Romanticism exalted intuition, feelings, emotions, the mystical, the bizarre, the monstrous, and even the occultic. Like the Enlightenment, Romanticism had its own form of elitism, but the Romantic elite was the truly romantic individual, the man of great mystical insight, emotion, and passion. A prime example, Kelley notes, is the messianic artist:
In the Romantic world, the artist was a man above men, a veritable messiah-type. Romantics saw in the artist the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the image of divinity, the reveler [sic] of the secrets of God, the interpreter of nature, prophet, priest, and king. All the symbols of the religious past, as re-worked in the Romantic mind coalesced in the soul of the artistic genius. (p. 286)
Kelley correctly contends that one factor contributing to the rise of Romanticism was the medieval "pietism" which shifted attention from the victorious redemptive work of Christ to the emotions of His suffering (p. 274); much Christianity became emotionally rather than theologically oriented as a result, and it is this pietistic strand that later contributed to a humanistic romanticism.
While nascent Romanticism stressed inhibited freedom, it soon swung to the opposite extreme and embraced political totalitarianism. This transformation was effected by the Romantics' assessment of the supposed depersonalizing effects of capitalism and the industrial revolution on society. The Romantic ideal became socialistic: the early romantic utopia of all men living together in bliss and peace, sharing all resources, eschewing private property, and so on. While Enlightenment man wanted to accomplish his rationally oriented society by education, the Romantics were committed to violence and revolution. In this sense, all modern political revolutions are Romantic.
Explicitly Biblical Cultural Dominion
Kelley concludes by arguing that each of these phases — ancient Greek, medieval monastic, medieval scholastic, medieval ecclesiocentric, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romanticism — constitute a decisive deviation from Biblical Christianity, and the only hope for establishing Christian culture lies not in restoring some version of a discredited pagan or synthetic culture of the past, but in building our culture squarely on the written Word of God, the Bible. Man is an inherently dominion being, and therefore the dominion commission is inescapable. The only question is whether man will exercise dominion in terms of the Bible, or in terms of his own depraved ideas. Thus far, "it was possible to conclude that man's impulse to power, i.e., the urge to form culture, has given shape to a cultural product that bears more the stamp of man, the covenant-breaker, than man, the covenant-keeper" (p. 309). Man's only hope for cultural reclamation is explicitly Biblical Christian culture.
This is a reverent, learned, profound, and penetrating work that probably will not get the widespread recognition it deserves. The evangelicals and fundamentalists are too pietistic and anti-intellectual to take it seriously. The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are too ecclesiocentric not to be offended by its full-Biblical foundation. Even the Reformed, from whom it should get nothing but praise, may ignore it since it would require of them a greater responsibility than they are willing to undertake. But it is a great book nonetheless, and it deserves wide reading. One recommendation: I wish the author had brought the work up to the present period by addressing the issue of postmodernism, the leading ideology of today's Western elite. Perhaps he can do this in a second edition, and I greatly hope there will be a second edition. Kudos to Tim Wilder and Contra Mundum for giving us this outstanding work.
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).