Why Bad Diagnoses Lead to Even Worse Cures
We hear much these days about evil being attributed to institutions, systems, structures, cultures, etc. When people speak in this way, they are promoting the view that evil is metaphysical: it is inherent in the world and the elements that make up that world. Evil is external to us, but intrinsic to the world. Once evil is seen as being embedded in the fabric of impersonal things, it is fought at the metaphysical level without reference to personal morality.
This viewpoint is popular because if evil is metaphysical, man is a victim. If evil is moral, however, man is a perpetrator. Humans therefore attribute evil to metaphysical things to flee from personal responsibility. Metaphysics becomes the great scapegoat that allows man to play the victim card. By depersonalizing evil, man exonerates himself while priding himself on raging against the machine.
Today one’s legitimacy is measured in terms of the new language of metaphysics, as in this recent statement in Time magazine (italics added): “And are those who have found success within existing structures an extension of systemic failure or the ones best equipped to fix them?”1 This language is the new normal. As Orwell’s biographer pointed out, “Newspeak first corrupts writers morally, then politically” by compelling the use of such “ready-made prose.”2 Out of this moral corruption comes the new focus on metaphysics.
Revolution is fueled by man’s faith in metaphysical determinism. Conservatives fight to preserve the existing metaphysics against the revolutionaries who want to supplant it, but both sides agree that metaphysics sets the bounds of discourse. The human heart is off limits.
In The Institutes of Biblical Law, R. J. Rushdoony illustrates this shift away from personal responsibility into metaphysics by citing Marxist Lincoln Steffens’s public lecture on Genesis 3:
You want to fix the fault at the very start of things. Maybe we can, Bishop. Most people, you know, say it was Adam. But Adam, you remember, he said that it was Eve, the woman; she did it. And Eve said no, no, it wasn’t she; it was the serpent. And that’s where you clergy have stuck ever since. You blame that serpent, Satan. Now I come and I am trying to show you that it was, it is, the apple.3
Rushdoony points out that the doctrine of economic determinism embedded in “it was, it is, the apple” is “a denial of the personal responsibility affirmed by Scripture.”4 It breeds an entirely different set of actions and solutions, shaping a future of perpetual war between competing metaphysical institutions and systems. The excuses offered by Adam and Eve were metaphysical in nature, and Steffens walks the same path in affirming man’s victimhood.
Escape from Responsibility
Proverbs 13:15b teaches us that “the way of transgressors is hard,” putting the focus on moral transgression of the law. By shifting the focus to metaphysics, to institutions, man escapes this indictment by shaping new explanations for his difficulties. By erasing the moral dimension of God’s world, man seeks solutions in metaphysics, and because his problems aren’t actually metaphysical in nature, he remains at war with his fellow man and himself. Consider Rushdoony’s comments on the idea of invisible rulers:
Many people like to believe that somewhere invisible rulers pull the strings which govern all of us … [Actually], the strings that pull us come out of our heart and mind.5
We are therefore awash in Manichaeanism—a heresy pervading our era precisely because it favors the metaphysical over the moral. Rushdoony observes that it’s not so much a heresy as it is a rival religion:6
[T]he contrast in Manichaeanism is not between good and evil as moral positions but as metaphysical ones.7
The heightened rancor in today’s discourse can be traced to the coercive dominance of Manichaeanism, where even the solutions to problems are offered in Manichaean terms, which guarantee their failure. The actual solution, one rejected by Manichaeanism, is laid out by Rushdoony:
For Biblical faith, salvation is by Christ’s atonement and by His regenerating work in us. From being rebels against God, we become members of Christ’s new humanity. This conversion makes us a new creation in the moral, not the metaphysical sense.8
But man seeks solutions outside of the moral dimension, which is why he hates God’s law, which exposes him as a covenant-breaker by marking out how he should walk. God’s law blocks man from playing the victim card and retreating into metaphysics, which is why man rejects it and refuses to see himself as a transgressor against moral order.
Flattening the Moral Dimension
This retreat from morality into man’s preferred surrogate, metaphysics, is vividly accounted for in the Old Testament:
Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the Lord of hosts hath sent in his spirit by the former prophets … (Zech. 7:12)
The shift to metaphysics requires suppressing what man knows to be true in his own heart. To make good on his do-it-yourself guilt-avoidance program, he makes his heart “as an adamant stone” so that the law cannot penetrate his conscience. The shift to metaphysics is built on self-inflicted heartlessness.
To Build a Hiding Place
No text of Scripture better describes man’s retreat to metaphysics than Ecclesiastes 7:29:
Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.
This Scripture even contains the shift from morality to metaphysics: man was made upright (a moral attribute) but he seeks out many inventions (metaphysical things). It’s worth looking at this text a bit more closely. Consider Bartholomew’s analysis of the author’s (Qohelet’s) perspective:
The unusual use of lebad (only)—this is the only place in the OT in which lebad introduces a main clause—alerts us to the importance of what is to follow … There is something wrong, says Qohelet, with humans and, by implication, not with God … God made humankind “straight” and not crooked, but humans have sought out many schemes. In most cases in the OT when “straight” (yasar) is used of humans it carries ethical and religious connotations, as it does here … The human was created good, but something has gone terribly wrong.
Hisbonot should thus be understood to refer to “human inventions, a planned and technically conceived activity which is often wrong, ineffective, or evil” … Something about Qohelet’s search has led him into his own version of human schemes … Qohelet has found that his own search for wisdom “by wisdom” is merely his own particular version of humanity’s scheming.9
Bartholomew drives forward to his conclusion concerning this crucial verse:
God made humans straight but they have devised many schemes. It is not the world that is crooked but humans.10
When you anchor reality to metaphysics instead of morality, that last thought is exactly reversed: the world is crooked and man needs to fix it by coercively manipulating it to comply with his schemes, devices, arts (as Luther translates it), or his “inventive refined degeneracy” (as Delitzsch puts it).
Refuge from the Curse
Scripture attaches a curse to this shift toward metaphysics, as is evident in Jeremiah’s warning to that effect:
Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. (Jer. 17:5)
To trust in man is metaphysics, and to make flesh to be one’s arm, is also metaphysics. One arrives at this point when one’s heart departs from God (which embodies moral rebellion against Him). This retreat into metaphysics for security and strength brings God’s curse upon those who travel this wide path leading to destruction.
Peace has always been a byproduct of moral conduct: when we keep God’s law, the sword shall not go through our land (Lev. 26:6). The source of war is moral. There is no metaphysical path to peace: this is the great lie of our times, one that man craves would hold true for him so he can be let off the hook. To build a path to a peaceful future on metaphysical grounds is to make bricks without straw: man’s moral corruption will only fester in endless revolutions outside of moral regeneration in Christ.
The shift back from metaphysics to morality, to personal responsibility, is the key to our future, the only way through the tumult before us. In a recent Arise & Build article11 I drew attention to Isaiah’s teaching that moral character is the key to surviving the ongoing burning judgments of God:
Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil; He shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks: bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure. (Isa. 33:14b–16)
This is alien thinking to our era because man has imparted idol status to his metaphysical schemes and devices. Consequently, men remain “estranged from me through their idols” (Ezek. 14:5). They do not have ears to hear the moral dictum laid down by Christ: thou shalt live by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4—a text that leaves no room whatsoever for appeals to metaphysics).
Man refuses to accept the fact that the human heart is desperately wicked above all things (Jer. 17:9) and his flight into metaphysics is his way of saying “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” But man’s strategy leaves the most evil thing unchanged and still sitting in the driver’s seat. This amounts to a cover-up, one following what Dr. Gary North called the old debater’s trick: if your case is weak, pound the podium and shout. Shout so that the source of evil (the heart, Mark 7:21ff.) is given a pass while institutions, systems, and things are indicted at an accelerating pace.
What Shifting to Moral Solutions Does NOT Mean
Regrettably, the principle of Regeneration, Not Revolution has been interpreted to mean that Christians ought not have an impact on the things of this world: on governments, culture, society, etc. This principle has been wrongly taken in a pietistic way, as if the most we can do when a social evil prevails is to pray for God to spread salvation in the right places. By no means does the pursuit of moral solutions entail moral cowardice on our part, let alone inaction! The prophets of the Old Testament went toe-to-toe with evil leaders and rulers, prosecuting covenant lawsuits against them at the risk of their lives. John the Baptist modeled moral courage against Herod Antipas of the most extraordinary kind and was ultimately martyred for it.
The Baptist’s conduct is often misconstrued in this way: “We don’t see John the Baptist doing anything to overthrow the government, so we should follow his example and abstain from fomenting political change, which formed no part of his message.” But do we really follow his example? He promoted transformation through clear moral instruction directed to soldiers and tax collectors (Luke 3:12–14) that radically altered their conduct. He reproved the tetrarch, earning the ruler’s enmity. It’s because we think in metaphysical categories that we miss the total relevance of the Baptist’s actions in going to the root of Judea’s problems.
Further, our generation’s ignorance of God’s law creates a very anemic view of what constitutes moral matters we are mandated to pursue. This is the second point where we cripple and muzzle ourselves. The first involves looking for specific mandates for metaphysical change (such as political revolution) because we’ve drunk the Manichaean Kool-Aid. The second is not understanding that “Thy commandment is exceeding broad” (Ps. 119:96b) and that the man diligent in his labors will stand before kings.
The transformation of the political and social domain is depicted in Isaiah 32:1–8 in moral terms focused on justice. The King James Bible preserves the imperative sense in 2 Samuel 23:3, which injects a moral requirement deep into the political domain:
The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.
Dualistic, Manichaean, and pietistic distortions of Biblical faith essentially rob the moral realm of its power, putting all the emphasis on the metaphysical realm—the realm where revolutionaries rage against the status quo while its defenders take up arms in its defense. The Bible cuts across all these categories by indicting man himself, and then putting forward regeneration as a key step forward.
Regeneration, Not Revolution
When metaphysics dominates our horizon, reconciliation is inaccessible and peace is impossible. But God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19) because we need reconciliation as a result of our moral rebellion. The future of this world is being driven by this moral reconciliation between God and man, and (as a result) between man and man.
How then do we evaluate the relative merit of the moral dimension versus the metaphysical? One Scripture in particular sets the two domains against each another in a memorable way.
Better a dish of herbs where love is, than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Prov. 15:17)
Here the Scripture tells us which is truly better: not the more luxuriant metaphysical situation, but the vastly more modest one. What tilts the balance in that direction? The moral element, which far outweighs metaphysical considerations. So too is moral change in man, through regeneration, the better path to a brighter future.
Revolutions merely shuffle the deck using the same cards (or murder countless millions to “improve” the deck’s contents). Regeneration alone delivers true transformation that will abide, that has an actual future.
1. Time Vol. 196, Nos. 3–4, 2020 (July 20 & 27, 2020), p. 82.
2. Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorized Biography (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 62.
3. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books,  2020), p. 572.
5. Rousas John Rushdoony, An Informed Faith (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross Hoss Books, 2017), vol. 3, p. 804. Rushdoony concludes that in actual fact “we are the invisible rulers who will not rule” (p. 807).
6. ibid, p. 715. On page 11 of God’s Plan for Victory Rushdoony says further of Manichaeanism that “it is more than heresy: it is apostasy.”
9. Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), p. 268–269.
10. ibid, p. 275.
- Martin G. Selbrede
Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.