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Rushdoony on the Meaning of History

By Martin G. Selbrede
August 12, 2015

Dear Mr. Selbrede,

I have been perusing R. J. Rushdoony’s Biblical Philosophy of History, and very much agree with the argument he has made. I do, though, have a question regarding the consistency of one of his conclusions. (If you haven’t got the time for this sort of thing, feel free to direct me elsewhere. You won’t hurt my feelings.)

On page 33, R. J. denounces the idea that “a man is his history, the sum total of his past”; saying that in this perspective, “[m]an becomes an affect, a product, and causality is primarily ascribed to the environment rather than to God.”

However, Rushdoony appears to make a 180-turn on page 89, when he declares, “If you and I have our histories abstracted from us, and our heredities as well, along with all our cultural conditioning and responses, we are no longer men, no longer human beings, but an abstract and theoretical concept of man.”

Is Rushdoony saying that we are our history in the same sense that he previously said we are not? Or, is there a semantic distinction here that I’m simply missing?

Regards,

Friend of Chalcedon

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Dear Friend of Chalcedon,

In regard to your inquiry, I take Dr. Rushdoony to be avoiding two extremes.

In the first extreme, man is merely the product of historical process. There is no consideration of eternity, only immersion in historic time. He is never greater than the sum of his parts.

That position (historic time is the only thing that exists, meaning man has only an immanent nature that can never transcend history or appeal to eternity) is expressly contradicted in Ecclesiastes 3:10-11:

“I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.”

The second extreme is that wiping out history (e.g., via a cultural revolution, as Mao presided over) to create a new man, a new history, presupposes the truth of the so-called environmental fallacy, that man is pliable and plastic and that utopia can be created by manipulation of environmental inputs. Man’s past is therefore rendered meaningless, an inconvenient distraction that (for example) only results in negative effects like Balkanization (when nationalistic trends oppose unification into larger political units). Man’s penchant for playing God requires unleashing man from history, so that man’s only source of meaning is the state. The sin nature of man is denied at the same time eternity is denied in this perspective.

Herein lies the irrational component of modern man’s thinking: in evolutionary thought, man is entirely the product of historic process and bound to history and has no prospects beyond such materialistic determinism, but in Marxism man is severed from the yoke of historic process (which is either abandoned or destroyed in a revolutionary act) to realize the new goal of history at the hands of the elite planners, who become the new “intelligent” determiners of how man will evolve.

In either scenario, the impact of eternity (out of which historic time flows—the actual source of time, as it were, in consideration of time itself being a creation of God, a Being who dwells in eternity) is expunged. Besides this common feature, we end up with despair (the first extreme) that can only be resolved by faith in the state (the second extreme) remaking history. This is, of course, the gist of both Humanist Manifestos.

I hope these random thoughts help you grapple with Rushdoony’s statements. Rushdoony was interested in restoring meaning to history—in his view, man is shaped by history and shapes history under God because God's decree (under which man operates) is the ultimate source of meaning and purpose. When men forget this, they suffer under the frustrations of Ecclesiastes 3:10 because the "desideratum aeternitatis" (what Matthew Henry calls "the sense of eternal things") embedded by God in man's heart will not be suppressed.

Warmest regards,

Martin

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Topics: American History, Church History, Culture , World History

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 magazine, Faith for All of Life. 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.

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