Presupposing Propositional Truth
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Thu May 11, 2006 at 05:08:37 PM EST
Related to the Christian Reconstructionist's presupposition of biblical inerrancy is an unacknowledged assumption that truth is propositional (written words) more than personal (incarnate Word).   Rousas J. Rushdoony's thought, as expressed in his Institutes of Biblical Law, clearly reflects this.

Below the fold is part three of a series on Rushdoony's Institutes.  Here's are links to part one, Presupposing Inerrancy, and part two, Presupposing Theocracy.

Rushdoony's God reveals himself in perfect propositional form:

Because God is one, and truth is one, the one law has an inner coherence.  The unity of the Godhead appears in the unity and coherence of the law.  Instead of being strata of diverse origins and utility, the law of God is essentially one word, a unified whole.  p. 18.

The importance of understanding God's word as law is so important to Rushdoony that throughout his writings he repeatedly unites them with a hyphen.  "Law-word" is a term he uses whenever he wants to emphasize the importance of the "law" as "word of God" more than the usual idea of "Bible" as the "word of God" conveys:  

But the word of God is one word, and the law of God is one law, because God is one.  The word of God is a law-word, and it is a grace-word:  the difference is in men, by virtue of God's election, not in God. p. 18.

Except for pluralism, Rushdoony opposes the idea of progressive revelation more than anything else.  When explaining why Christians are not obligated to wear phylacteries, he writes:

It is not observed by Christians, because it was, like circumcision, the Sabbath, and other aspects of the Mosaic form of the covenant, superseded by new signs of the covenant as renewed by Christ.  The law of the covenant remains; the covenant rites and signs have been changed. . . . In every age, the covenant is all-holy and wise; in every age, the people of the covenant stand in terms of grace, not because of a "higher" personal ability or maturity.   p. 23

His final statement, "Not because of a "higher" personal ability or maturity," caricaturizes the position of Christians who believe that God's revelation is historically cumulative and progressive.  In the progressivist view, the Hebrew prophets called attention to the inadequacies of a legalistic propositional understanding of truth by foretelling a time when a "new covenant" would be inscribed on human hearts.  Later, the incarnation revealed that truth is ultimately personal, not propositional.  Then, Pentecost revealed God's willingness to relate with us personally and individually.  

Rushdoony's view of revelation admits no such dynamism or progressivity.  His God is as static and unchanging as Aristotle's unmoved mover.  For him, human understanding of God should be equally static and unchanging.  In his view:  God is perfect, the law is perfect, men are imperfect, Jesus died for the imperfections of God's elect, and the elect prove they are elect by observing the law:

The law was given in order to provide God's people with the necessary and required response to grace, and manifestation of grace:  the keeping of the law. pp. 23-24.

Rushdoony's ultimate concern is with God as law-giver.  He only seems comfortable talking about God in personal terms when he speaks about God's wrath:  

The fact that jealousy is associated repeatedly with the law, and invoked by God in the giving of the law, is of cardinal importance in understanding the law.  The law of God is not a blind, impersonal, mechanically operative force.  It is neither Karma nor fate.  The law of God is the law of the absolute and totally personal Creator whose law operates within the context of His love and hate, His grace towards his people and His wrath towards his enemies.  A current of electricity is impersonal:  it flows in its specified energy when the conditions for a flow or discharge of energy are met, otherwise, it does not flow.  But the law of God is not so:  it is personal; God restrains his wrath in patience and grace, or He destroys His enemies with an over-running flood of judgment (Nahum 1:8) p. 24

If God is ultimately a jealous law-giver, then it would be insane not to fear him:

The reason for the giving of these commandments is to awaken fear of God, and that fear might prompt obedience.  Because God is God, the absolute lord and law-giver, fear of God is the essence of sanity and common sense.  To depart from a fear of God is to lack any sense of reality.  p. 16

According to Rushdoony's understanding of reality, we only live in a "universe" because God is One and the Law is One with him:

The premise of polytheism is that we live in a multiverse, not a universe, that a variety of law-orders and hence lords exist, and that man cannot therefore be under one law except by virtue of imperialism.  Modern legal positivism denies the existence of any absolute; it is hostile, because of its relativism, to the concept of a universe and of a universal law.  Instead, societies of men exist, each with its order of positive law, and each order of law lacks any absolute or universal validity.  The law of Buddhist states is seen as valid for Buddhist nations, the law of Islam for Moslem states, the law of pragmatism for humanistic states, and the laws of Scripture for Christian states, but none, it is held, have the right to claim that their law represents truth in any absolute sense.  This, of course, militates against the Biblical declaration that God's order is absolute and absolutely binding on men and nations.
    Even more, because an absolute law is denied, it means that the only universal law possible is an imperialistic law, a law imposed by force and having no validity other than coercive imposition.  Any world order on such a premise is necessarily imperialistic. . . .
      Modern political orders are polytheistic imperial states, but the churches are not much better.  To hold, as the churches do, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist, and all others virtually, that the law was good for Israel, but that Christians and the church are under grace and without law, or under some higher, newer law, is implicit polytheism. pp. 17-18.

We could ignore Rushdoony if he and a handful of others were the only ones who shared this view of reality, God, and the law.  Unfortunately, large numbers of evangelical Americans are being influenced politically by people who both share these opinions and know that they do not reflect traditional Christian thought.  That is why it is important to examine this thought so closely.  

To be continued . . .  

Jonathan Edwards had a similar - if perhaps more extreme sense of a wrathful deity :

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.

From "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God"

by Bruce Wilson on Thu May 11, 2006 at 06:53:59 PM EST

And was amazed then, as I am still amazed now, at the sheer volume of hatred and venom, fear and loathing contained within that sermon. Not one drop of love, not one atom of mercy- just wall-to-wall hate. It's one long primal scream, and difficult to stomach if your perception of God is not as a wrathful being.

If there is a 'document zero' in the fundementalist movement, this is probably it. When I find myself faltering in my resolve to keep our country from becoming a theocracy, I reread this, and Rushdoony's writings, to retemper my determination.

by Lorie Johnson on Fri May 12, 2006 at 10:50:27 AM EST

That one of Edward's parishioners committed suicide after that notorious sermon. But, that might apocryphal.

by Bruce Wilson on Fri May 12, 2006 at 11:32:32 AM EST

We ought to consider the time and context in which he lived.

Most modern fundamentalists can't hold a candle to Edwards intellectually.

I'll write more about Edward's preaching in a blog next week.

by Mainstream Baptist on Fri May 12, 2006 at 01:35:00 PM EST

This series on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is extremely important, particularly because belief or disbelief in that doctrine has come to be accepted, by some segments of our society, as the litmus test for distinguishing between those people who are good and those who are evil.

However, while many of us could probably benefit from everything you have time to write on the doctrine as it is derived from the works of Mr. Rushdoony, I hope you will also prepare additional articles to place the doctrine in a broader historical and logical/theological context.  Here's what I mean:

HISTORICAL CONTEXT:  You suggest, though you don't actually say, that the doctrine originated in Mr. Rushdoony's The Institutes of Biblical Law.  But that book was published in 1973, just 33 years ago.  In Part 5 of his series on "God, Calvin, and Social Welfare" on this site, Mr. Berlet describes a somewhat earlier manifestation of the doctrine:  "From 1910 to 1915 these reactionary theologians published articles . . . .  Among their beliefs was the idea that the Bible was never in error and was to be read literally, not as metaphor."

Frankly, I would be very surprised if "biblical inerrancy" were a 20th Century phenomenon.  Given the obsession with theological minutia that occupied many theologians during the Middle Ages, it is hard for me to believe that a much more important concept like this one did not receive some attention.  So what was the position on biblical inerrancy taken by the various factions within the early Christian church, by the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Rite (Orthodox) churches during the Middle Ages, by the early Protestants, etc.?  And is there a parallel doctrine of biblical inerrancy (with "Bible" referring only to the Old Testament, of course) within some or all of the branches of Judaism?

You hint that you have an answer to some of these questions when you say that Mr. Rushdoony's views "do not reflect traditional Christian thought."  I would like to know much more.

LOGICAL/THEOLOGIAL CONTEXT:  If the Bible (and here I wish to avoid digressions into the nonetheless obvious questions as to WHICH translation or interpretation of "the Bible" we are talking about) is the literal, perfect Word of God, how do we know this?  I do not recall any section of the Bible which says this, and even if it did, reliance on that section as conclusive support for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy would be circular reasoning in its purest form:  "I know that every sentence in this book is true because one of the sentences in this book says 'Every sentence in this book is true'."

So where does this crucial doctrine come from.  Revelation?  If so, revelation to whom?  Study and analysis?  If so, by whom, and how did the analysis proceed?  Revelation and study are the only possible answers I can think of, but if there is another one, I'd like to hear more about it.

The only answer I've found so far is in the first article in this series, where you say, "In their eyes, if God can't be trusted to hand them a perfect book . . . , God could not be perfect."  OK, that's not a flagrantly illogical answer, but it certainly isn't the only logical conclusion as to what a perfect God would do.  Maybe the perfect God wishes to see his creations work their way to a state of near perfection approaching His or Her own by utilizing the reasoning facilities with which they were endowed to discern the truth that was only hinted at in the deliberately imperfect book with which they were provided.

I can't believe that our society is being torn apart by a doctrine that is, explicitly on its face, nothing more than one of the many logical conclusions that about what a perfect god would do or that it has been elevated to that staus merely because seems to be best to a particular group of undoubtedly fallible human beings.  If Mr. Rushdoony had said, "I know the Bible is infallible because God spoke to me and told me so," and the other proponents of biblical inerrancy said the same, I might not believe them, but I would at least understand their position.

So I humbly, but eagerly, await your answers to these questions.

by Theovanna on Thu May 11, 2006 at 07:13:49 PM EST

The promotion of literal interpretations of the Bible and biblical innerancy isn't quite a 20th Century innovation, but it DOES date from around the 19th Century--specifically via the "Holiness Movement" in Wesleyan churches (including the Methodist churches) that spawned the pentecostal movement.

One of the earliest reference Bibles to be interpreted and noted with an explicitly fundamentalist and literalist viewpoint is the Scofield Reference Bible (very interestingly, this is also the particular bible version that not only popularised premillenial dispensationalism (and the longstanding urban legend that Russia was the home of the Antichrist, as well as much of the body of premillenial dispensationalist "timeline" stuff fictionalised nearly 100 years later in the "Left Behind" books) but gave justification for Holiness and pentecostal movements--thus being heavily used by them).

The earliest dates that are even possible for the establishment of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy are at the birth of Protestantism, and even afterwards (as even as early as 500 AD Augustine had noted objections to young-earth creationism and had himself reckoned that the Genesis account of creation did not match with the available evidence of the period).  

In fact, interestingly, the birth of biblical inerrancy (at least as practiced by dominionists) is directly the cause of, and exactly parallels the promotion of, "young earth" creationism.  The Wikipedia article on "young earth" creationism details thusly:

Revival of Young Earth Creationism

The rise of fundamentalist Christianity at the start of the 20th century saw a revival of interest in Young Earth creationism. In 1923, George McCready Price, a Seventh-day Adventist and amateur geologist, wrote The New Geology to provide an explicitly fundamentalist perspective on geology. The book was partly inspired by the book Patriarchs and Prophets in which Seventh-day Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White described the impact of the Great flood on the shape of the earth.

Not mentioned in the article, but of note: the Scofield Reference Bible was also the first reference bible to explicitly condone "young earth" creationism, and in fact Wikipedia's article on the Scofield Reference Bible attributes much of the popularising of "young earth" to this particular reference bible.

There are other sources that also point specifically towards inerrancy especially beginning to be promoted around the start of the 20th century (here, for example)

Berlet's dates, I expect, are aiming more at around the time that the Scofield Reference Bible was published (the very early 1900's); a later date (in the 1970's) could be reckoned mostly from the first official multi-church statement promoting inerrancy, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (which was released in 1978).  (The full text is here;  of historical note, the Coalition on Revival used this as one of its founding documents as well.)

Based on the fact that pentecostal groups were using biblical inerrancy statements as part of their founding statements of faith as early as the 1910s (the Assemblies of God, possibly the denomination with the longest history of explicit dominionism (having essentially invented it), has pretty much always had policies of biblical inerrancy combined with the concept of "rhema" (extrabiblical revelation meant as God speaking directly to a person or congregation)) Berlet's date sounds better to me, and I'd probably put the date that inerrancy started being really pushed at around 1870-1880 (when the Holiness movement started getting into full gear).  At least one document noting the history of "young earth" creationism in relation to biblical inerrancy movements also backs up a date of around 1870-1880.   (Interestingly, this is a criticism from a site that promotes the more traditional ideas of creationism--"old earth" and "directed evolution" creationism.)

The first works on inerrancy do date from the early 1900s (even the very work The Fundamentals, the basis for most non-pentecostal fundamentalist movements (including non-dominionist fundamentalists), dates only to about 1917 or so)

In fact, the earliest references I can find at all to the concept of biblical inerrancy are the 17th century (per this article, possibly denoting the birth of Calvinist movements.  

So realistically, it IS relatively new for mainstream Christianity.  And, interestingly, it's had nearly as long of a history of being promoted as the cure-all for what ails the country (further showing its roots, at least here in the US, within the Holiness Movement): this article notes how proto-dominionists were in fact some of the first major promoters of biblical inerrancy (stating that, in essence, the country was going to hell back in 1913 because "people weren't following God's laws in the Bible"--and making statements regarding women's liberation that sound straight out of a "covenant marriage" or Pearl tract or Assemblies of God sermon about how women working outside the home are "stepping out of God's appointed role" and are being Jezebels.)

by dogemperor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 10:29:07 PM EST

I have briefly checked out the links you provided and will read the full articles when I have more time.  I remain quite surprised by the relative recency of this doctrine in light of its exalted position in today's political/theological discourse.

by Theovanna on Fri May 12, 2006 at 05:19:28 AM EST
I can understand why you'd be surprised--most people don't realise that a lot of the major "plot points" of dominionism as well as its justifications are VERY recent innovations in Christianity:

a) "Rapture" theory and biblical innerancy--started in the 1850's-1870's, popularised by the "Holiness Movement" (this is important, as pentecostalism derived from it, and dominion theology derived from pentecostalism), and especially by the first printing of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1907

b) Russia = Antichrist (major bit of theology in premillenial dispensationalist churches)--started with Scofield Reference Bible in 1907 (in claims that Tsarist progroms were proof that the Tsar was the Antichrist) and persistently maintained through no less than three governmental systems in Russia

c) Young-earth creationism--started again with Holiness Movement, popularised in Scofield Reference Bible, especially popularised in 1910's-1920's by Seventh-Day Adventist groups (in fact, some groups like Institute for Creation Research got their start then from the SDA-linked groups)

d) "Spiritual warfare" theology and dominionism itself--ultimate origin is with Holiness movement, has been with branches of the pentecostal movement (particularly the Assemblies of God, International Foursquare, and their descendent denominations including the entire "neopentecostal" movement which started from Assemblies "church missionary" work in the 1950s) since its beginning; "dominion theology" as we know it today probably started as early as the 1930s with William Branham and political dominionism was birthed at roughly that point (some have argued that Prohibition may well have been a proto-dominionist or early dominionist movement, which would push the origins again to the 1870's or so).  I have a rather more detailed history of dominionism within pentecostalism and the Holiness Movement.

e) Church Hijackings (a la Institute for Religion and Democracy)--started around the 1960's and strategy practically invented by Assemblies of God-linked groups engaging in "sheep stealing".  Again, I have a more detailed post on this.

by dogemperor on Fri May 12, 2006 at 08:33:10 AM EST

I do not mean to suggest that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy began with Rushdoony.  It didn't.

Strong doctrines of biblical authority have been around for centuries.  Doctrines of inerrancy are relatively recent.  

Distinctive to Van Til, Rushdoony, Schaeffer and other "presuppositionalists" is a reluctance to try to prove inerrancy by evidentialist apologetics and/or rational argument.  They just presuppose the truth of inerrancy and build their theological system from there.

Most inerrantists engage in incessant argumentation trying to prove the truth of inerrancy.  It is incessant because the doctrine cannot be proven to the satisfaction of all but a very few of those who do not already believe it.

by Mainstream Baptist on Fri May 12, 2006 at 12:44:24 AM EST

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