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Rationalism and History

An important aspect of rationalism is that it is normally non-historical in its approach to reality. The perspective of Hellenistic philosophy is a focus on abstract ideas or forms that govern reality, and they are non material.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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An important aspect of rationalism is that it is normally non-historical in its approach to reality. The perspective of Hellenistic philosophy is a focus on abstract ideas or forms that govern reality, and they are non material. This is why the prologue to John's Gospel is so anti-Hellenic in declaring that "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14). At every point, this statement is a violation of Hellenic premises. The Word is a Person; he is made flesh; he is the "only begotten of the Father" and the fullness or incarnation of grace and truth. This for Greek thought was a confusion of ideas and history.

Because of this view of things, philosophy in this tradition by-passes history. Hence the failure to consider the Fall and the atonement in philosophy: it simply is not done. Both doctrines are totally anchored on history. In the Fall, at a point in man's early history, mankind, in the persons of Adam and Eve, chose to submit to the tempter's thesis that man could be his own god, knowing, or determining for himself, what is good and evil, law and morality, and truth and error (Gen 3:5).

Similarly the atonement stands totally rooted in an historical event, Christ's vicarious sacrifice on the cross, paying the penalty of death for the sins of his people, his new human race. The Christian Faith and philosophy, theologically and philosophically, is firmly grounded in history. Its holy book, the Bible, is largely history. Greek philosophy and modern philosophy are firmly non-historical at best. It is human thought that is determinative for them, not a long history of man's response to God.

Instead of man's thinking being determinative, it is only God's thinking that can be so. Man's thinking at best can establish gods made in man's image, and this is idolatry. All thinking is presuppositional. If man presupposes himself, his logical conclusion, like Kant's, is that all we can know is our mind. If man presupposes God, then his presupposition is inclusive of all things because the God of Scripture is the Maker of all things. Like the sun that gives light to all things else, so our faith in the Triune God of Scripture gives light to all possible knowledge.

When St. Paul preached at Athens, as Van Til pointed out in Paul at Athens, he did not attempt to prove God nor Christ. He declared the reality of the Lord, not of his mind and its reasoning. This was at once offensive. They were ready to debate across the lines of differing rationalistic philosophies, but not against the presupposition of the Triune God, nor his revelation in history. They mocked Paul for presenting the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead (Ac. 17:32), for confusing purported history and philosophy, and for his very alien presupposition.

Modern man has carried the Hellenic priority of man's mind to its logical conclusion. This has meant, as Van Til has shown, that

in modern times man has boldly asserted that he can identify himself first before he speaks of God. He will identify God after he has first identified himself. And this is not merely a methodological matter, due to the fact that man must psychologically think of himself first before he can think of God. It is a matter of ultimate metaphysics. It is the idea that man is ultimate. Man as ultimate can and must identify himself in terms of himself. He must therefore also virtually use the law of contradiction as means by which to determine what is possible and what is impossible in reality. (Cornelius Van Til: A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 180. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1954.)

If man is ultimate, then indeed, God must stand with his revelation at the bar of man's reason, as Carnell demanded. But, if God is ultimate, man's reason must think God's thoughts after Him, not replace the mind of God with his own.

This means that man's ideas of logic and knowledge are precisely that, man's ideas, and limited by the limitations of man's mind. As Van Til wrote:

human knowledge can never be completely comprehensive knowledge. Every knowledge transaction has in it somewhere a reference point to God. Now since God is not fully comprehensive to us, we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical. We say that if there is to be any true knowledge at all there must be in God an absolute system of knowledge. We therefore insist that everything must be related to that absolute system of God. Yet we ourselves cannot fully understand that system. (Cornelius Van Til: The Defense of the Faith, 61. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955.)

Was a final system of logic achieved in Aristotle, one binding for all time, and on God? Has not history made clear that much that man saw as impossible has become possible? To say this does not open the door to unlimited possibilities because we do not go from Aristotle to chance (a short distance), but to God.

Moreover, we cannot as Christians believe that man's sin affects only his will and not his reason. Clearly, a man is fallen in all his being. The mind is as prone to sin as is man's will. This means that we cannot think Biblically and as Christians and neglect the fact that man is in rebellion against God. This means that man's reason is as totally depraved, as is all the rest of man's being, i.e., total depravity, meaning that all of man is infected by his sin. It is absurd, and a rationalistic error, to assume that the mind does not do more than process information. We can separate ethics and epistemology in the classroom but not in life. Anyone who believes that such a separation exists in practice is a good candidate for buying a gold brick. Scholastic philosophy followed Aristotle in its trust of reason, and Protestant philosophers who are rationalists are in this tradition and alien to the Reformation. The god of the rationalists is an idol made in their own image, a god who meets the requirements of man's reason. Some of these twentieth-century theological rationalists have had serious mental problems, which is not surprising. Playing god over God is a dangerous game.

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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