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The Religion of Fallen Man

True religion is God-centered; false religion is man-centered.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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(Reprinted from Revolt Against Maturity: A Biblical Psychology of Man [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1987], 134–139).

Because man was created by God, man cannot escape God’s creating purpose. Even in his rebellion and in all his revolutionary activity, man manifests God’s purposes, however much he may deform them. Man seeks to create a paradise, exercise dominion, increase his knowledge, and, in many more ways, to manifest those aspects of God’s image in him which govern him in his culture and society. Among these aspects of man’s culture which reveal God’s purpose is religion. Since man was created to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever, man cannot escape being a religious creature. In the state of depravity, however, man seeks a religious faith apart from God and in hostility to Him.

True religion is God-centered; false religion is man-centered. The psalmist stated the difference vividly in Psalm 115:1–9:

  1. Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.
  2. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?
  3. But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.
  4. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
  5. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
  6. They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
  7. They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
  8. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.
  9. O Israel, trust thou in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.

The context of this psalm is a situation wherein Israel was being mocked for its helplessness, and for its trust in the Lord.[1] The only god acceptable to these mockers was a god who met their demands, who gave them all glory as their captive power, or a bribed suzerain. While the psalmist pleads for deliverance, and a confounding of the heathen nations’ contempt for God (v. 2), his emphatic and opening cry is that the glory be the Lord’s, never man’s.

The idols of the nations are described with contempt. God the Lord reigns in heaven over all things: “He does whatever He pleases” (v. 3; Leupold). In humanistic religions, the purpose of the gods is to please man; in true religion, God is not governed by man but governs him; in every age and in every situation, He does whatever He pleases.

The fabricated gods are dead gods; “they cannot even make the faintest and most inarticulate gutteral [sic] noise, like the lower animals; much less speak as men do.”[2] The obvious fact about idols is that they are lifeless and meaningless creatures, unable to do anything. The psalmist’s climactic point is that “They that make them are like unto them; so is everyone that trusteth in them” (v. 8). According to Alexander, “How formidable now, they shall hereafter be as powerless and senseless as the gods they worship.”[3] Another point needs to be added: not only is the future destiny of humanists this radical impotence, but they are impotent even now in their seeming power. Because God is the Lord, all their words add up only to a radical frustration and impotence.

The futility of humanistic or man-centered religion is that, although man is the problem, it still seeks its answer in man. This is like asking a murderer to be a doctor, or a rapist to guard a woman’s virtue.

The newspapers daily give us examples of humanistic religious faith. Thus, a major newspaper carried an analysis of welfare by [Irving] Kristol, who reviewed Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Essay on Pauperism” of 1835. Tocqueville found that welfarism grows most rapidly in wealthier countries. Moreover, because wealthier countries are more likely to have welfare grants and to be more liberal, they bring into play man’s sinful nature. According to Tocqueville:

There are two incentives to work: the need to live and the desire to improve the conditions of life. Experience has proven that the majority of men can be sufficiently motivated to work only by the first of these incentives. The second is only effective with a small minority…. A law which gives all the poor a right to public aid, whatever the origin of their poverty, weakens or destroys the first stimulant and leaves only the second intact.

Tocqueville’s perspective reflected the Christian view of man. Kristol immediately noted the religious presuppositions which separated him from Tocqueville and cited them plainly:

At this point, we are bound to draw up short and take our leave of Tocqueville. Such gloomy conclusions, derived from a less than benign view of human nature, do not recommend themselves to the 20th century political imagination or to the American political temperament. We do not like to think that our instances of social compassion might have dismal consequences — not accidentally but inexorably. We simply cannot believe that the universe is so constituted.

We much prefer, if choice has to be made, to have a good opinion of mankind and a poor opinion of our socio-economic system.[4]

If man is good by nature, evil must come from “the system” or the environment; if man is a sinner, then evil must come from the heart of man. The issue is religious, and welfarism is a humanistic plan of salvation.

For another example of humanistic faith, let us turn to Tom Braden, who is deeply concerned over the moral decline in the United States during the 1960s. Who could have imagined in 1960 the violence and lawlessness which we have witnessed in the past ten years, he asks? “Have we lost our belief that reasonable man may dispute the truth and thereby redefine it? Have we lost our sense of responsibility toward one another and toward the community as a whole? Or have we all gone crazy?” The root of the problem, Braden holds, is “the use of disorder, or antilaw, as a weapon,” and this “is rapidly becoming a moral problem in itself.” Braden’s answer is revealing:

Perhaps we need a new moral code or a new education or, as Henry Adams once suggested, a new social mind. Every generation of Americans has struggled to attain and apply power, and every generation has worried about the power it created. But in 1971, we seem suddenly to be confronted with the complexities in the use of that power which we did not imagine even 10 years ago.

Unless we can agree upon a morality which will unite us in dealing with them, we may be looking back, 10 years from now, on a decade that was violently coercive.[5]

Braden shows us why we have had a moral crisis. He believes that “reasonable men may dispute the truth and thereby redefine it.” He wants “a new moral code,” and he believes that men can possibly “agree upon a morality which will unite us” and enable us to cope with our problems. The root of the moral problem is humanism, and Braden’s answer is more humanism.

Man being a sinner, when he substitutes a do-it-yourself religion and a man-made morality for God’s Word, his substitute becomes sin made into a system. The revolutionary activities and movements of the 20th century, and of the modern era, have been intensely religious and thoroughly humanistic. Their net result has been to make every man his own god and law. Not surprisingly, this has led to totalitarian statism and what Braden calls “violently coercive” measures to avoid anarchy.

But Braden will not see that his own principles produce the moral anarchy, the disorder and the antilaw, which he deplores. To do so would require him to forsake his humanism, and this in principle he will not do. The problem with humanists is not a lack of intelligence but a willful self-blinding. In his religious quest, the humanist refuses to look beyond himself for his god. The more he intensifies his quest, the more he becomes, like the idols described by the psalmist, speechless, mindless, and senseless. Not surprisingly, the heart of mysticism, a form of humanistic religion, is this same speechless, mindless, and senseless experience. The mystic calls for the exclusion of the external world, doctrine, revelation, and outer experience for total concentration on an inward blankness. The Hindu mystic declares, “Thou are that,” i.e., the mystic is himself one with the ultimate power and is the ultimate power.

For humanism, man’s religious consciousness and man’s psychology is the real source of religious knowledge and revelation. The true word comes out of man, and therefore man’s experience needs to be developed. Religion then ceases to be “Thus saith the Lord,” the Word of God, but rather becomes, “Thus say I,” the word according to man.

Because humanism ascribes the word of truth to man, it must of necessity ascribe to the source of revelation the power to meet its own revealed word. If humanistic man says that the answer to world problems is love and pacifism, he then logically believes that his revealed truth, love, can also overcome war and hatred and inaugurate world peace. Man’s world becomes the word of power because it is the word of truth. The capacity for self-reform is assumed to be great and even limitless. In Boston’s phrase, it is implicit in such thinking that a man can “leap out of Delilah’s lap, into Abraham’s bosom.”[6] But the sinner cannot reform himself to please God, only to please himself. “The unrenewed will is wholly perverse, in reference to man’s chief and highest end. The natural man’s chief end is not God, but himself.”[7] For such men, God is “[t]he means, and self their end; yea, their chief end,”[8] if they allow God into their thinking at all.

The religion of humanistic man aggravates and furthers his fall, and it intensifies and develops his depravity.

[1] H.C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Columbus, OH: The Wartburg Press, 1959), 798.

[2] Joseph Addison Alexander, The Psalms, Translated and Explained (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, reprint of 1864 edition), 470.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Irving Kristol, “Welfare: Best Intentions, Worst Results,” Los Angeles Times, Sunday, August 1, 1971, Section I, p. 1; the article was originally published in The Atlantic.

[5] Tom Braden, “What We Have Lost in the Past Ten Years,” in Woodland Hills Chronicle, Thursday, July 1, 1971, Citizens News Publications, Canoga Park, California.

[6] Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State, 53.

[7] Ibid., 74.

[8] Ibid., 71.

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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