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Karma vs Providence

If man is simply a link in the chain of Karma, then he is beyond criticism because he is beyond responsibility. He is a victim, and hence not responsible.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Taken from Rushdoony's Systematic Theology in Two Volumes, p. 162

J.S. Mackenzie, in his Manual of Ethics (London, 1900), declared, "To be free means that one is determined by nothing but oneself." Such a freedom, however, can only be ascribed to God. Mackenzie in effect posited a necessary aseity for man, so that man could be freed from all determination external to himself.

From ancient times to the present, such a view of man has been repeatedly popular, although arising in different contents and cultural traditions. It has had competition, however, from another tradition. Just as Mackenzie represents one extreme, so too does Karma represent another. For the doctrine of Karma, all acts have a necessary and inescapable link to the past and to the future. There is an inexorable chain of causes and effects, so that, instead of man being one who is determined by nothing but himself, as with Mackenzie, man becomes nothing but a brief and fleeting focus of consequences. We may call him a person, but he is really only a moment in a chain of causality, a step, not a determiner.

In a sense, these two doctrines represent an antithesis. However, to hold so is to overlook a central fact: both absolve man of responsibility. If man is determined by nothing but himself, he is responsible to no one; he therefore cannot be judged by an external law or standard. He is then his own god and law. He is his own universe and causality, and none can judge him. However, if man is simply a link in the chain of Karma, then he again is beyond criticism because he is beyond responsibility. As a product of Karma, he is no more than a consequence of a multiplicity of causes, and he bears a burden not of his making. He is a victim, and hence not responsible. Both positions thus mark man as a covenant-breaker who refuses to acknowledge his sin before God.

In both positions, moreover, a fundamental principle of polytheism appears, "gods many and lords many." In Mackenzie's view, every man is his own god; in the doctrine of Karma, the multiple and accruing causes become the many gods. In either case, man denies responsibility.

The doctrine of creation, however, sets forth, among other things, two facts which make man fully responsible. First, man is God's creation. The universe and man move, not in terms of an abstract, impersonal, and inexorable causality, but in terms of God and His law. The common doctrine of causality, because of its Greek origins, depersonalizes causality, which is seen as a part of the blind world of matter. This doctrine of causality has great affinity to Karma, and, like it, presupposes some kind of ultimate other than the sovereign and absolutely personal God of Scripture. A depersonalized causality is nonsense: it is a myth and a delusion. Second, man is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28), so that, by virtue of that image, he is a responsible creature who has a secondary power of determination. He is not a god, but neither is he a passing link in a chain of consequences. He is man, a responsible creature, and hence, in his fall, under God's moral judgement (Gen. 3:16-19; Rom. 3:10-19). His creatureliness is an inescapable fact, as well as his creation in God's image. Similarly, the doctrine of providence has major implications with respect to man's responsibility. The Stoics used the word providence as a synonym for nature, necessity, and fate; it was non-personal and no more than a causal nexus. Thus, despite the use of the term providence, the Stoic doctrine was closer by far to Karma than to Scripture.

The Biblical doctrine of providence gives us the personal and triune God whose government totally comprehends all things. This means, first, that because it is a universe of personal facts that surround us, and the personal God, our response and actions cannot be impersonal: they are always personal and moral. Neither we nor creation are abstractions, nor is the movement and nature of things a product of blind necessity. We live, move, and have our being in God and His universe, in a moral context at all times (Acts 17:28) so that we can never escape moral decisions nor moral responsibility. Man was no sooner created than he was confronted by the necessity for moral decisions (Gen. 2:16-17). The moral choice placed before Adam was not something imposed by God on Adam but an inescapable fact of creation and providence. Since God has created man and all things else, and God's absolute and total government rules providentially in and through all things, moral responsibility is an inescapable part of the constitution of things. There is no neutral, non-moral corner in all of creation. God's total providence is His absolute wisdom, holiness, and righteousness in action. Man's life is thus not in a vacuum but in a moral context and continuum. Not even death provides the sinner an escape from this moral universe.

Such a view is not acceptable to paganism and humanism, nor to the neoplatonists in the church. In Deuteronomy 23:12-14 we have a law wherein God requires even an army on the march to practice sanitation where defecation is concerned. The neoplatonist is not averse to state laws on sanitation, but he wants God to remain "spiritual" and above and beyond such matters. He thus turns over a vast area of ultimate responsibility and providence to the state. Biblical law makes such a view heresy.

Second, the doctrine of providence means that, at every moment, every man confronts the living God. His response, whether for good or evil, is a personal and a moral response. Man is inescapably a responsible creature.

In Proverbs, we have a strong emphasis on God's sovereign and predestinating government, as witness Proverbs 16:4 and 20:24, but this goes hand in hand with a strong stress on man's moral responsibility (Prov. 20:11,17,23, etc.).

God is the living God. So Jeremiah's words, "the LORD is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation" (Jer. 10:10). We cannot isolate morality from religion without denying both in any Biblical sense. God is the Lord, and nothing is outside or beyond Him, so that in all things we are face to face with the living God and His government.

For the ungodly, whatever order, rule, or providence that may exist in the universe is an impersonal, abstract, and exterior fact and government. For us, because God is our Lord, it cannot be seen as such, and is in fact never such for any man. Providence for us means a universe of total and personal meaning which becomes our life and world by the adoption of grace. We then move in the light of God's providence and grace as responsible covenant-keepers. We have a place then in that total government, a meaning, goal, and calling. Responsibility for us is then not a chore but the key to a world of knowledge, holiness, righteousness, and dominion under God as His image bearers.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • 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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