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The Bankruptcy of Rationalism

Rationalism has often "proven" the existence of God with its use of reason, but the god verified by the rationalist's reason is the god of his imagination, and, for far too many people, this is the only god they know. The living God of the Bible is offensive to the moral sense of fallen men. The rough edges of fallen man’s god are smoothed out until he becomes acceptable to reason, and also agreeable to the sinner's idea of what god should be.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Position Paper No. 216

Rationalism has often "proven" the existence of God with its use of reason, but the god verified by the rationalist's reason is the god of his imagination, and, for far too many people, this is the only god they know. The living God of the Bible is offensive to the moral sense of fallen men. The rough edges of fallen man’s god are smoothed out until he becomes acceptable to reason, and also agreeable to the sinner's idea of what god should be.

The rationalistic philosophers of religion rarely if ever speak of the fall of man, nor of the effects of the fall on man’s mind. Somehow, the philosopher is immune to sin! But the noetic effect of sin is very central to a Biblical doctrine of knowledge. Man’s reason is not immune to the effects of sin. I t is rather radically altered by it.

Sin alters man's perspective and warps it radically. Since original sin is man’s will to be his own god, his own source of ultimate knowledge, and himself the determiner of good and evil, and law and morality, it follows that original sin is essentially related to man’s reason. Man the sinner cannot tolerate the God of the Bible, only a god acceptable to his reason. Hence, the only god he can tolerate is the god of his imagination, one who approves of man’s rationalism. The god of the philosophers is a particularly ridiculous idol.

The fall of man is basic to a true epistemology or theory of knowledge because the fall meant the radical warping of reason that constitutes rationalism. Before the fall, God was in communication with man. After the fall, the situation changed. In Van Til's words, "if God was to continue His communication with His creatures, it was either to be by condemnation or by atonement" (Cornelius Van Til : An Introduction to Theology, vol. I , 104. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1947). Condemnation means the judgment, death, and reprobation of man. Atonement means that Christ's sacrificial death, vicariously dying for his elect, removes us from condemnation to life, from guilt to innocence. Our rationalistic theologians act as if there is no relationship between atonement and epistemology, and such an assumption makes them at best defective Christians if not indeed anti-Christian.

It is obvious, first of all, that man as sinner hates the truth. In this he is logical (and how he loves logic!), because the truth condemns him. It is for him so much easier to go by Aristotle than by the Bible, because Aristotle acknowledges no fall. If no fall is admitted into our theory of knowledge, then one's thinking is flawless, and we have a rational god presiding over rational man, and both are agreed on Aristotle's logic!

Thus, second, not only does fallen man hate the truth, he at best warps it when he is faced with the truth. "Man is assumed to be the final or ultimate reference point of predication" in such thinking, which is univocal reasoning. "In contrast to this we speak of the form of reasoning employed by the Christian who recognizes that God is the ultimate reference point of predication as analogical reasoning" (ibid., I, 97, n.).

Because man’s mind and will have been corrupted by the fall, his ability to think has also been corrupted. Failure to know God as the Lord means failure to know ourselves as creatures. We begin then with a false premise about ourselves and our ability to know. 

Man’s thinking has been corrupted by the fall, third, so that he now thinks of himself "as a metaphysically ultimate starting point" with his mind as normal (ibid., I , 92.). The key to reality is not the mind of man but the mind of God. Man’s mind is fallen and finite and by no means capable of understanding the world apart from God's written revelation. Even apart from sin, unfallen man could only think God's thoughts after him.

Amazingly, rationalistic theology has saturated the church in all its branches. Eastern and Western, Roman Catholic and Protestant. Too many theologians and religious philosophers assume that, until their rationalism came into play, man was ignorant of God, or knew him poorly. The arrogance of rationalism is the arrogance of original sin.

To say this is not to depreciate reason. It would be a foolish man who assumed that Abelard was a better thinker than St. Anselm. St. Anselm's premise was, "I believe in order that I may understand," whereas Abelard held that one should understand in order to believe, a rationalistic premise. Abelard's starting point was rationalism, Anselm's was Biblical. Not surprisingly, Anselm's philosophy was centered on the atonement.

Rationalism itself is evidence of the radical effect of the fall in that the world of epistemology, the theory of knowledge, has shifted its center from God to man. Epistemology is now a semi-forgotten branch of philosophy because it is bankrupt. The modern stream of thought from Descartes through Hume, Kant, Hegel, Sartre, Wittgenstein and others is one of intellectual and moral bankruptcy and a despair of knowledge.

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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