Book Review and Musing on: The Foundations of Christian Scholarship

Today I would like to make a combination book review and musing on the Theonomic approach to Christian scholarship, so that those who lack the inclination to read books like this may still ponder and participate in the struggle to define what is uniquely Christian scholarship.

The Foundations of Christian Scholarship:  Essays in the Van Til Perspective, edited by Gary North

This book is a challenging read (especially for those who do not come from a “Reformed” and Presbyterian background, but it is rewarding for those who are able to struggle through it because the stakes are made very clear about the way that Theonomists view Christian Scholarship in a wide variety of fields.  The frustration that a reader gets from a book like this, though, is the combination between searching insight, ferocious claims of orthodoxy, and frequent examples of elementary errors of logic (especially false dilemmas and arguing from faulty and unexamined premises).  The end result is that the book is important to understand for those who are involved in the struggle for Christian Scholarship but not a word that can be wholeheartedly recommended because of its many and troubling flaws.

The book is organized in a very straightforward way.  Despite the difficulty of the language used in these essays, the book has a very simple aim:  to examine as many fields of scholarship within the framework of Van Til’s Presuppositional Apologetic (which, stated in layman’s terms, is that all conflicts between people with different worldviews spring from the basis of their presuppositions, and that by attacking flawed and contradictory presuppositions one gets to the heart of a disagreement rather than arguing over twiggy and peripheral issues).  In order to deal with such an approach, it is necessary to examine the writings of a Vantilian by their own method, to show how they come up wanting in terms of biblical and logical consistency, showing that the contradictions between their own claims means their conclusions, no matter how scholarly argued, are faulty.

The aims of this work are described, in somewhat challenging language, in the opening section of the work, entitled “Epistemological Concerns,” with two essays from Gary North (on “The Epistemological Crisis of American Universities”) and Rousas Rushdoony (on “The Quest For Common Ground”).  These two chapters form the foundation of the work’s approach, and demonstrate admirably that in order to find common ground it is necessary to point out that one’s opponents are borrowing from the only true worldview, that of the Bible, illegitimately, and are therefore “stealing” from God’s foundation of truth in order to make their worldview appear logical and consistent.  Likewise, the conflict between the “New Left” and the “Old Left,” between rationalism and relativism, chance and determinism, the many and the one, is a chasm which divides all humanistic knowledge claims.  Anarchy and tyranny, or some mixture between the two, are the only tools that an ungodly humanity has to work with.  It should be noted, though, that Theonomists fall into the same trap because of their hostility to God’s law insofar as it requires Sabbath obedience and the respect of the dignity and property of the common man (and not only the wealthy).  The result is that these Theonomists, despite their very heated rhetoric about the inconsistencies of their opponents, suffer the same problems themselves that they criticize of their “Social Gospel” opponents, due to their inconsistent biblical worldview and their own desire to baptize ungodly secular worldviews (like Austrian economics and neo-Confederate historical revisionism) in the language of Christianity.

The essays of the second section of this work show the same frustrating combination of keen insight along with the consistent refusal to shine that harsh light of criticism on their own perspectives concerning various academic disciplines.  The second section contains essays by Rousas Rushdoony (on Psychology), C. Gregg Singer (on History), Gary North (two essays, one on Economics, and the other on Sociology), William Blake (on Education), Lawrence Pratt (on Political Science), and Vern Poythress (on Mathematics).  The essays demonstrate very clearly and accurately that mankind’s ways of understanding the world are caught in a net of contradictions between a proiri assumptions of rationality and the subjectivity of sense data and perspective each person has.  Over and over again in these disciples they hammer over the conflict between fact and theory, between objectivity and subjectivity, between the many and the one, demolishing the arguments of the academic elite in a wide variety of fields.  Combined with these useful and vital insights, though, is the frustrating tendency to argue from unexamined and quite faulty premises.  For example, Vern Poythress argues from the writings of Van Til and Rushdoony that “the problem of unity and plurality, of the one and the many…finds its solution only in the doctrine of the ontological Trinity [1].”  That this argument is bogus (given the self-contradictions inherent in Trinitarian views as well as the fact that the Godhead is not a closed one, but an open one that will eventually include a large amount of resurrected human beings, a subject for another, more lengthy work yet to come) hardly seems to have crossed the minds of these would-be Christian scholars.

The final section of the book examines the foundations for Christian reconstruction in the fields of apologetics (an essay by Greg Bahnsen), philosophy (another essay by Greg Banhnsen), and theology (an essay by John Frame).  Of course, given the flawed theological views of the Theonomists, and their hostile and aggressive form of apologetics (one, I must admit, that has great personal appeal to me as attacking the foundations of thought in opposing worldviews), it seems unlikely that they are able to engage the kind of Bible-centered theological soul-searching and systematic theology that their own worldview would require for them to be consistent with their own claims.  Nonetheless, in the short and eminently readable epilogue, Gary North comments on the centrality of the word to Christiantiy (and, to a lesser extent, Judaism and Islam, as fellow “people of the Book”).

The final verdict on a book like this will vary widely based on where you stand.  A Theonomist is likely to find it to be a stellar book, a casual Christian is not likely to hazard a reading of it given its difficult language, and a Christian socialist is likely to be extremely insulted (I gather that is part of this book’s purpose).  For a reader like myself, sympathetic to the stated claims of the authors to develop a Christian scholarship based on genuine biblical foundations but skeptical of the actual achievement of those aims by this movement, my own personal verdict on it is an A for effort, an F for humility and a C- on achievement.  In short–it wouldn’t pass graduate school muster on its merits, but one has to appreciate the sincerity of the effort taken.

A Musing On Christian Scholarship

Given the book review above, I wished to ponder and reflect upon the issue of a distinctive Christian scholarship rather than merely baptized humanistic endeavors.  The Theonomy movement has in general voiced its intent to provide a genuine Christian scholarship very loudly, but its achievement has often fallen short of its loud claims.  I would like to examine the similarities between the Theonomy Movement and that of  the “baptized humanism” theonomists like Gary North often loudly criticize.  I would then like to provide a sketch of what a true exegetical Christian scholarship would look like.

Theonomy and Its Critics:  Twins Separated At Birth

There are a lot of strong similarities between Theonomy and the Social Gospel, as they are baptized humanists of the right and left.  On the side of the Theonomists we have the deliberate and provocative effort to engage in revisionist history to support the neo-Confederate cause, which often includes ad hominem attacks on Abraham Lincoln, extreme hostility to those political scientists who would show Lincoln’s firm commitment to liberty and equality (like Harry Jaffa), and often a dangerous appeal to kinists, with their openly heretical and racialist views of the gospel.  It should be stated, though, that many Theonomists have a clear and open hostility to kinism, despite their kinship with those views given the Southern Nationalism at the base of much Theonomist writing and thinking on history.  Likewise, the Social Gospel is often aligned with a historical revisionism that seeks to remove from the history the powerful influence of God’s law on the legal worldview of America’s founding fathers, as well as a firm commitment with the goal of the radical left to destroy the influence of God’s law and moral behavior in contemporary American society, often including a racist agenda supporting “subaltern” or “marginal” ethnic and cultural groups.

Likewise, in the field of economics, both Theonomy and the Social Gospel appear more like mirror images than real opposites.  Theonomists tend to hold to a laissez faire economic view without the moderating role of the Theory of Moral Sentiments (if one wishes to go back to Adam Smith), often explicitly seeking to view biblical economics through the lens of Austrian Economics.  The resulting economic worldview seeks to “spiritualize away” the biblical laws that defend labor and protect the poor while considering as fully enforceable those laws that protect the property rights of the wealthy.  On the other hand, the Social Gospel movement seeks to use the demands for “love” and “charity” to justify socialist usurpation of the responsibilities of the individual, family, or church.  The bible is mined for justification rather than the principles on which society is to be governed.

The same root problem is at the bottom of both the Theonomist and Social Gospel viewpoint.  These two perspectives are two of the many manifestations of the tendency of mankind to seek to justify their worldview from the Bible rather than seeking to understand what it is that the Bible actually says about given subjects.  One ought not to condemn either Theonomists nor Social Gospel adherents (like Jim Wallis) too harshly, as it is a human tendency that all of us have to struggle against.  Nonetheless, we ought to openly admit it as a problem.  When we view there being some sort of ultimate authority apart from God, we commit a fundamental worldview error by viewing mankind (be it an Austrian economist or Karl Marx) as an ultimate authority rather than seeing God as the only ultimate authority.  This mistake can be a subtle one, and there may even be pro forma statements that the human authority we have got a few things wrong even as we accept their basic approach as part of our worldview, turning ourselves into subjectivists, despite our claims and best intentions.

The Foundations of Christian Scholarship

Given the foregoing demonstration that the Social Gospel and Theonomy share an eisigetical approach, rather than an exegetical approach, to applying the Bible to contemporary life, let us examine an outline of what an exegetical approach to that application would look like.  One thing we must agree on is that the task of applying the Bible to modern life requires the development of discernment and judgment to see what biblical principles apply–it is not simply a matter of quoting a “thus saith the Lord” and letting that be the end of it.  One thing an examination of both the Social Gospel and Theonomy (or any serious attempt to implement biblical law into contemporary society) is the realization that great mental labor and study are required, but that the task is vitally essential because the Bible is the authority for the true Christian in all walks of life, not merely personal morality and piety.

That said, we must look at what it is that God seeks to accomplish on this earth.  God wishes to develop godly offspring capable of showing personal responsibility and mature capability of judgment.  This task requires the development of the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical abilities of every believer in order to understand and apply the Bible in all aspects of human life and behavior.  The regenerating influence of God’s Holy Spirit is to touch every single area where believers have influence and presence.  Nothing is to be left unregenerate and corrupted by the corrosive influence of sin.

However, as all believers themselves have different experiences, interests, talents, and personal inclinations, a full and systematic development of the application of God’s law in all walks of life is far beyond the capabilities of any single Christian.  Those who have similar inclinations (for example, economics, politics, penology, history, cooking, music, literature, and so on) ought to work together, encouraging each other in a broad and deep understanding of what the Bible says about their own particular subjects.  Once the Bible has been mined for its laws and principles, and those have been examined and placed in the public knowledge, then those principles and laws can be applied and expounded upon for others to profit from as well.

Let us give one example.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am a military historian.  Given my deep interest in both the biblical historical record and the field of military history specifically, I wish to conduct myself a thorough examination of the Biblical Way of War, not from any sort of pacifistic mindset, but from how war is engaged and theorized in the Bible itself, from the accounts of both doctrine and practice, with implications for the physical and spiritual realms.  I have an idea of what needs to be done about this, what areas I would like to examine, but I have lacked the means to begin my actual writing of the work, except short snippets about it, thus far (see, for example, my post on “An Honorable Profession,” one such effort).

This sort of study would only be one small field among many fields of study, but the work that has been done on it is nearly entirely nonexistent.  The situation remains the same if one examines the Christian foundations of law or music or history or philosophy on any other field.  The amount of actual exegetical work that has been done on looking at the biblical worldview of all subjects could probably fit in my car.  What needs to be done is for people working on the same fields to work together to create an encouraging and supportive atmosphere of people who wish to understand and apply the Bible deeply and thoroughly and consistently and who are willing to follow the truth of God where it takes them rather than put the Bible through a rigid ideological straight-jacket.  While there is time, let us engage in this task, knowing that we need to redeem the time for the days are evil.  At the very least, even if our own initial efforts are likely to be meager and require revision and updating, at least let us leave something behind so that others are in a better place to build on the biblical foundation after us, rather than having to stare out at the same wilderness of ignorance and deception.  Let us light a candle, for we have cursed the darkness long enough.

[1] Gary North, editor, Foundations of Christian Scholarship:  Essays in the Van Til Perspective, (Vallecito, CA:  Rose House Books, 1976), 161.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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