In the spirit of “redeeming the time” through the celebration of the first-ever Rushdoony Commemoration Day today, I thought his contribution to Christian historiography to be an appropriate theme to consider in honor of the greatest theologian of the previous century. As Ehud Would has observed, there is a desperate need for us as epistemically self-conscious Christian Kinists and Theonomists to return to orthodoxy when it comes to our approach to historiography, and understanding and appreciating Rushdoony’s contribution in this regard is vital.
Rushdoony can be placed in the tradition of great Christian historians throughout the ages who stand in stark contrast to humanist and all anti-Christian approaches to history, but in particular after the Enlightenment. There are of course many more, but probably the two most famous and outstanding Christian historical works prior to the Enlightenment were St. Augustine’s City of God, published in A.D. 426, and Otto of Freising’s Chronicle or History of the Two Cities, published in A.D. 1145 Both of these works are foundational for the true biblical-covenantal conception of history as promoted by orthodox Christian historians. In our modern era, the Enlightenment’s antagonism towards history in favor of absolutizing rationalist abstractions was fought by a number of European Christian historiographers during the nineteenth century, all of whom, in accordance with the demand at the time, purposefully engaged in historical contemplation to oppose not only the Enlightenment’s secularization of the field, but also the threat these new philosophies posed to the field of historiography itself. Most notable of these were the German Church historian August Neander, a converted Jew (1789-1850), the Swiss historian Merle d’Aubigné (1794-1872), and the Dutch historian Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876). Shaped by their Christian faith as well as the synchronic-ethnographic method of the Göttingen School of historiography, these historians all promoted the traditional Christian “faith-and-folk” conception of history over against the Enlightenment’s abstract universalism – with its ideal of an identity-free, rootless, godless utopia based on the humanist motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity, or death.” Rushdoony himself had great appreciation for d’Aubigné in particular, and continued this Christian historiographic tradition in the twentieth century by his apologetic claims promoting the superiority of the Christian approach to history over others, especially those methods which arose out of Enlightenment epistemology. Before proceeding to Rushdoony’s historiographic polemics, let’s take a look at the main theoretical standouts of Rushdoony’s Christian historiography.
Theoretical Standouts of Rushdoony’s Historiography
Rushdoony approaches the historiographic process, i.e. the relationship between historical fact, interpretation, and truth, by starting with the idea that predestination is an inescapable premise for all human thinking, since “the universe moves in terms of God’s eternal decree, and man, created in God’s image, thinks inevitably in terms of the purpose, pattern, and decree which predestination gives to all creation and to the functions of human thought.” With the denial of divine decree, therefore, one still cannot escape the concept of decree, and the Enlightenment simply replaced divine decrees with natural decrees.1 When, however, the Enlightened man’s faith in natural law is shattered, and “another dead god [is] down the drain,” man is left alone in the universe, which inevitably leads to a conception of “truth and meaning a[s] purely human categories of thought. They are man’s creations and must be imposed on the universe. . . . A decree is necessary, and it does not exist in or behind the universe: man must therefore promulgate his own ‘divine’ decree and impose it upon human society and upon all creation.”2 This is also reflected in Rushdoony’s criticism of all pragmatic theories of truth, since truth becomes “functional or instrumental, not metaphysical. . . . Since truth is non-existent, the purpose of philosophy must not be meaning but control. . . . This scientific socialism is man’s decree of predestination applied to history, to man and society, in order to give [it] a ‘human’ meaning.”3 This scientific socialism becomes necessary, because naturalistic (modern) historiography loses itself in an endless search for causes: secondary causes are indeed endless, and when reducing history to immanent processes, one’s historiography breaks down.4
Rushdoony proposes a pre-Enlightenment epistemology, relating knowledge to absolute metaphysical truths which transcend and exist independently of all human thought, by which the postmodernist notion of fact-constitution as a collective activity is excluded. Although in the field of historiography, infallible knowledge is an impossibility, I do believe that Rushdoony is right in pointing out the insufficiency of viewing all knowledge as necessarily a collective activity. For (orthodox Calvinist) Christian historiography, one of its most distinctive pre-theoretical axioms (or presuppositions) is the belief in a sovereign God who has revealed His will through a special revelation in the Bible, infallibly. Practically, this implies that the Bible would be considered throughout the historiographic process as a most weighty source. This has implications for both the research phase, where as a historical document it would serve to critique other documents and not vice versa, and the composition phase, as an interpretative guideline on which a covenantal conception of history and the cosmos is based.
For Rushdoony, the basic starting point of a philosophy of history is the doctrine of creation, and this core presuppositional conviction with which to approach to history has nine implications for a biblical philosophy of history:
1) The universe (including time, history, and man) is the product of the creative work of a sovereign, omnipotent God.
2) History has to be understood primarily and essentially in terms of God as an eternal Being, and not only as sovereign Creator, but also as Sustainer and Governor of time and history.
3) Creation is a personal act of God with determined power, not an impersonal process – nor is God a product of the historic process.
4) God is in control of the universe through His predestining decrees. By implication, He is the first cause of all history. Man’s freedom is the liberty of a second cause, which is a genuine liberty, but limited, because man is a creature subordinate to God’s decrees. Rushdoony argues that sovereignty and predestination are inescapable concepts: “Whenever and wherever the doctrine of creation is denied or weakened, to that extent the sovereignty of God and His eternal decrees are denied or weakened; sovereignty and predestinating power are transferred into the hands of man.”
5) The source of energy and meaning of history lies in the sovereign creation of God; history thus finds teleological meaning in terms of the decrees of its sovereign Creator. There is no meaning, no direction, no purpose in history without recognition of God’s grand design of things.
6) This philosophy of history being grounded on the doctrine of creation, it is also inseparable from the doctrine of revelation. Rushdoony argues: “A perfect, omnipotent, and totally self-conscious God can only speak infallibly: His Word is inescapably an infallible Word.”
7) The origin of time is not in chaos but in eternity, and its origin is not chaotic but teleological. This predestination of time and its movement by an eternal God implies that time does not proceed from the past to an unknown future, but logically unfolds with the future (i.e. the eschatological telos) proceeding through the present to the past, though chronologically it is vice versa.
8) Anthropologically, man as a creation of God is passive in relationship to God, but active in relationship to nature. Rushdoony explains: “If man is the product of nature, then, however much he may hope to dominate and control nature, he is still basically its creature, conditioned by nature and subordinate to it. . . . Man is created in the image of God, and man is either a covenant-keeper or a covenant-breaker. . . . Nature was passive in receiving the consequences of man’s fall, and nature is passive today as man’s sin lays nature waste. Nature will be passive again in receiving her Sabbath rests from man’s hands, and it will finally share passively in man’s glorification (Rom. 8:19-22). Man is passive in relationship to God, and man’s sin and ruin are due to his attempts to free himself from this passivity and to become independent and autonomously active and creative. The non-Christian doctrine places man under nature and seeks to place him over God; the biblical doctrine places man under God, and over nature in Him.” Human ideas and beliefs (as covenantal reaction to the Creator) form the basic secondary cause in human history.
9) All factuality is personal, because it is the creation of the personal triune God, and it derives its meaning from His personal, creative act and eternal decree. For Rushdoony, “the best interpretation of reality which evolutionary philosophies of history can provide reduces history to sub-personal and sub-human forces. For the Darwinist, history is the product of impersonal biological forces; for the Marxist, the forces are economic; for the Freudian, psychological and unconscious. Not only is the meaning of history depersonalized, but man is depersonalized as well. Man begins by asserting the supremacy of his autonomous mind and reason and ends in total irrationalism.”5
Rushdoony’s Defense of the Biblical Philosophy of History against Enlightenment-Humanist Schools
One of the most influential early Enlightenment thinkers, the Scottish empiricist David Hume (1711-1776), laid the groundwork for a positivistic approach to history as most famously practiced by the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), considered by many to be the father of modern historiography. Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the French Enlightenment philosopher, is considered to be the father of positivism, which presupposes that, epistemically, the human senses and human reason form the alpha and omega of all sources of knowledge. From this epistemic presupposition, Comte proposed the “law of three stages,” a model for the historic evolution of every society from 1) primitive-theological, via 2) the metaphysical stage, to 3) the superior positive stage.
Rushdoony deconstructs historic positivism by noting that positivistic historiography begins with a fundamental act of faith, namely “the faith that God has nothing to do with history.” He describes this as an assumption or pre-theoretical axiom that has nothing to do with either science or history. The assumption is made prior to engaging in historiography, to which it is then applied upon engagement, which leads to a circular reasoning where the application of the assumption in the field of history is considered as its proof.6 From this criticism, Rushdoony reduces Comte’s three stages of the development of knowledge to a decline in the value of knowledge: “Comte denied God; therefore God’s presence in history was mythological, and progress in history was progress from theology to positivistic science. The three stages through which each branch of knowledge passes are therefore the Theological or fictitious; the Metaphysical or abstract; and the Scientific or positive. The historian also passes from a desire for finding true meaning to a pragmatic recognition that history must be approached pragmatically.”7
Against Hermeneuticism and Comparativism, and the Rejection of History as a Social Science
Whereas eighteenth- and nineteenth-century positivism emphasized the role of laws in guiding history, albeit mechanical laws very distinct from the Christian doctrine of providence, in the twentieth century many historians began to express reservations to this conception of historical causality. History came to be seen as an open process with no laws governing it. Two variants of this hermeneutical approach saw the light: 1) Collingwood’s intentionalism and 2) the postmodern narrativist approach. Intentionalism presupposes that the subject and object of the field are the same (viz., man himself), makes history more alive than dead natural laws presuppose, and allows for the inquiry into man’s motivations and consciousness. This makes historical thinking possible, as we leap into the minds of historical figures and re-think their thoughts. Intentionalism is fundamentally based in its conception of a universal rationality, itself based on an Enlightenment view of man. The narrativist approach, however, emphasizes the duty of the historian to give historical facts a coherence by which history becomes self-explicatory. In this model the research phase of the historiographic process become completely separated from the composition phase, and the coherence between the two becomes compromised.
This problem has led mainstream historiographers in the latter end of the twentieth century to lean towards a comparativist approach in which history is dissolved into the social sciences. The argument is generally that because historians can never know the sum of all possible causes, they have an open situation when it comes to causal explanation and so need to provide room for concurring theories on causal factors; however, the selection of causal variables is itself dependent upon certain theories on the relative importance of these factors in history. All conceptions of reality (classifications, types) are theoretical constructions, and history therefore is in constant contextual change. However, without theories, historians would drown in a sea of facts. The social sciences are therefore regarded as suitable for historiography, because in social sciences one cannot neglect contexts of time and space, and therefore there is no purpose in looking to theories that, like in the hard sciences, have a universal character. However, the fact that history changes does not mean that hypothesis-testing and theorizing are impossible. Non-universal theories are dependent upon presuppositional values with which the historiographer engages, and which are subject to change.8
Rushdoony would agree that the meaning of history is derivative in nature, but he counters that it derives its meaning and structure from the metaphysical, the transcendent (personal) Triune God, as sovereign Creator and Sustainer of time and history, not from impersonal social structures. History is thus always and inescapably intentional (contra structuralism), yet with God as first cause, the Enlightenment’s presupposition of a universal human rationality is also rejected (contra intentionalism). From this presupposition, the view of history as a social science, for Rushdoony, amounts to making history into “a laboratory in which man is experimented on for the purpose of making a meaningless history purposeful.”9 When man makes history, “the meaning of history as social science is simply that society and societal relations are a province of science and derive their meaning and content from scientific control and prediction.”10 Rushdoony therefore regards the integration of history into the social sciences when it comes to theorization as dangerous, because whereas history for the Christian is closely linked to theology, it now becomes an associate of sociology. But without a constant principle governing history, rooted in (Personal) divine transcendence beyond humanity itself, the purpose of history effectively moves away from the ideal of understanding, forsaking it in favor of becoming an instrument of control. Rushdoony disagrees that because history is in constant change, there is a need for non-universal historic theoretization from the social sciences, since there is not only constant change in history, but also a transcendent governing principle in history, namely the constant teleological purpose inherent to history as a creation of God (of course denied by modernist historians). This constant pre-theoretical value is, for the Christian historian, not subject to change, yet unmissable for his historic theorization. For Rushdoony, “history as a social science is concerned with escaping the defeat echoed by the poets. Instead of being ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ life and history as a social science are to be made into victory by means of total control and prediction,” since man then inevitably imposes his will on history.11 In fact, since, for Rushdoony, the social sciences are ultimately about the control of man by man, and since history is only dissolved into the social sciences in order to manipulate man into a social project, he rejects the very idea of the social sciences as a legitimate academic category.12 Rushdoony argues that in the field of historiography, these non-universal theories, derived from the social sciences and subject to changeable values with the context, reduce history to a form of “scientific socialism.”13 In other words, a societal institution such as the nuclear family, in a Christian historiography, can be clarified not in terms of its social function, but rather in terms of its metaphysical purpose. Rushdoony criticizes the drive against metaphysical, ontological explanation as a means to reduce truth to functionality and instrumentality, avoiding epistemology and cosmology.14 Even on this level, i.e. in terms of the conception of the nature of historical reality and structure, certain (often irreconcilable) presuppositions prove decisive.
Over against the postmodern notion of a non-referential historical narrative, Rushdoony proposes an alternative answer to theoretical-historiographic questions that nineteenth-century modernist approaches leave unanswered. Rushdoony deals with the problem of theoretically conceptualizing historic causal relationships by proposing a pre-Enlightenment (pre-modern), theocentric ontology in order to deconstruct “humanity’s ability to reason independently of God” – a fundamentally epistemic (as opposed to aesthetic) answer.15 On the one hand, Rushdoony’s model 1) rejects the “open system” notion of hermeneutics, where historical events remain undetermined, with his emphasis on predestination and his counter-Enlightenment view of non-definitive and non-universal human rationality. On the other hand, 2) in contradistinction to nineteenth-century positivism’s empirical model of causal laws, he draws our attention to history-writing as an inescapably epistemic and theoretical-political act, because he casts his proposal of a Christian historiography as an answer to the British historian William Carr’s emphasis on the need for a pre-theoretical historic teleology for making sensible history-writing possible.16
Yet, with this same notion of theocentric predestination (or decree) Rushdoony simultaneously 3) distinctly rejects the structuralist notion of history as a social science, where the understanding of historical reality is determined by human interrelationship. He proposes the idea of a personal God behind, and a personal man with, ideas and beliefs in history, as an alternative to what he considers the “depersonalization” and “dehumanization” of history into impersonal structures.17 By making history impersonal, as the social sciences do, not only is God removed from the equation, but man is transformed from a responsible moral agent to a victim of a supra-intentional structure.18 From a Christian historiographic approach, however, not only history is viewed as closely related to theological and religious concepts, but also the study of human culture and ideas.
For Rushdoony, the root of modernist historiographic distortions lies with eighteenth-century deism, which reduced providence to naturalistic processes. Providence came to be seen as a mechanical, impersonal and naturalistic working of history itself. The Calvinist doctrine regarding history as a creation of God, however, sees God not only as Creator but also as loving Father, whose actions in and guidance of history reflect this relationship to creation. It is this sovereignty of God over creation, as manifested in history, that makes the act of prayer sensible to the Christian believer.19
Rushdoony’s Postmillenial Eschatology and History
Postmillenialism has already been defended here at Faith and Heritage in the past. Applying the Burkian wisdom of appreciation and respect for one’s ancestors as a precondition for the true love of one’s posterity, Rushdoony, in his lecture “Why History Is Important,” notes the intrinsic connection between historiography and eschatology, observing that history not only concerns the past, but is inseparably connected to perceptions and expectations of the present and future. This intrinsic link between historiography and eschatology is inescapable, since every historian begins with a presuppositional faith and teleological expectations. Humanism, for example, has been in two minds regarding history, either seeing it as completely unimportant or as all-important. Humanism’s disregard for the transcendent implies that all hope is placed in history or time for the creation of a paradise on earth. If pessimism overtakes this ideal, however, humanism resorts to nihilism. Rushdoony refers to this as the humanistic dilemma regarding history. He notes that much of the Enlightenment optimism was shattered by the First World War, after which this pessimistic view infected even the Christian churches, where it led to the rise of premillennial thinking, akin to the revolutionary Marxist ideal of instant perfection via a world-wide revolution. It effectively amounts to surrendering history and depending upon a catastrophic act for salvation. Humanism and premillennialism both fall into historical meaninglessness.
However, Rushdoony counters that because God is in control, nothing is a mess and everything has a glorious purpose – therefore history has meaning. The entire Christian life is a plan for the future based on a faith regarding history. Our biblical faith is in the sovereign God; man makes his future under God as secondary cause. God’s law-plan governs the future, and if man refuses to obey this law, he is on an inescapable collision course with the covenantal Creator-God, as explained in Deuteronomy 28. Man must live according to God’s law in order to avoid divine retribution. God’s law exists as an absolute moral standard because God sovereignly created everything (including history) at a particular time for a particular purpose.20 God’s determination of and covenantal governance over history is described in His law, which spells out curses that result from disobedience and blessings from obedience.21 This applies inescapably to all nations at all times, because God’s creational ordinances are imprinted in the created reality and inevitably manifested throughout history.
For Rushdoony, therefore, “Postmillenialism holds that the prophecies of Isaiah and of all of Scripture shall be fulfilled. Scripture is not divided, it is not made irrelevant to history. There shall be, as Genesis 3:15, Romans 16:20, and Revelation 12:9, 11 declare, victory over Satan. . . . The postmillennial view, while seeing rises and falls in history, sees it moving to the triumph of the people of Christ, the church triumphant from pole to pole, the government of the whole world by the law of God, and then, after a long and glorious reign of peace, the Second Coming and the end of the world.”22
Rushdoony is outstanding in identifying the superiority of the Christian historiographic approach based on the biblical philosophy of history over all other (humanistic) schools. In terms of maintaining coherence, sense, and purpose in history, faith in the all-sovereign Creator and Ruler of the universe, time, and history is unmissable. Presuppositional faith in the triune God of Scripture, who personally directs history to its determined end, is the only perspective which saves history from complete chaos.
- Rushdoony 1997. The Biblical Philosophy of History, 15 ↩
- Ibid., 36 ↩
- Ibid., 37-38 ↩
- Rushdoony’s lecture “Providence and Historiography” – mp3 and text ↩
- Rushdoony 1997. The Biblical Philosophy of History, p. 3-11; see also Rushdoony’s lecture “Providence and Historiography,” cited above. ↩
- Rushdoony 1997, p. 77 ↩
- Ibid., p. 77-78 ↩
- Lorenz (1998), De constructie van het verleden – Een inleiding in de theorie van de geschiedenis, pp. 234-244. Note: This Dutch title translates as The Construction of the Past – An Introduction to the Theory of History. ↩
- Rushdoony 1997, p. 16 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 17, 59 ↩
- Rushdoony’s lecture, “Why History Is Important” ↩
- Rushdoony 1997, 17, 59 ↩
- Ibid., 37-38 ↩
- McVicar , M.J. 2007. “The Libertarian Theocrats: The Long, Strange History of R.J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism”. Florida State University Department of Religion Faculty Publications, p. 5 ↩
- Rushdoony 1997, 104; Carr 1962. What is History, 146 ↩
- Rushdoony 1997, 100 ↩
- Ibid., 58-59 ↩
- Rushdoony’s lecture, “Providence and Historiography” ↩
- Rushdoony’s lecture, “Why History Is Important” ↩
- Rushdoony 1997. God’s Plan for Victory: The Meaning of Postmillenialism, p. 44 ↩
- ibid., p. 14-15 ↩