By Rev. R.J. Rushdoony
After 1660, the foundations of Western culture began to shift away from Christianity. This was a resumption of a trend which began in the late middle ages and resulted in the Renaissance. The new, humanistic culture of the Enlightenment was primarily a culture of the court, of intellectuals, artists, and some of the clergy. This dominant culture did not reach into the lower classes except to impoverish them religiously and economically, so that eighteenth-century peoples were on a very low, neglected, and debased level.
The explosion which affected all classes was the French Revolution, which insisted on a new foundation and a new creed for all men. As surely as St. Dominic and Francis had been reformers, and later; Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Loyola, so too the revolutionary leaders were reformers, but of a different kind. As Otto Scott noted, they did not begin by reforming themselves: “they expected to reform others.”1 This was a major break with Christendom. In pagan antiquity, reform had meant the imposition of the will of a man or a group on all society. Gaius Marius (157-86 BC) craved justice for Rome with a great intensity, for example, but he had, as G.P. Baker noted, no doctrine of original sin. His solution was to see evil in others and then to destroy them in order to save Rome.2 Marius as a result had no patience nor interest in the ordinary legal processes of civil life. Instead, he bypassed them to gain quick “reform and justice.” This meant the sack of Rome, corpses in the streets, the ravishing of the wives and children of all his enemies, and the pillaging of their properties. Marius’s fretfulness over injustice made him a monster of vengeance.3 Because the Romans had no transcendental doctrine of sovereignty, lordship inevitably belonged to the state and its ruler.
In the French Revolution, Robespierre could declare in the Assembly, “The People are the Law,” and hence the sovereign.4 In practice, this meant, in terms of Rousseau, that the general will of the people was made manifest in the people’s voice, Robespierre. Because reason was sovereign, and Reason, the attribute of man, did not come into its own in the common man but rather in the general will and its elite voice, Robespierre was thus the sovereign, the voice of Reason, and the voice of Virtue. Fouche and d’Herbois set forth an edict which sums up the spirit of revolutions: “All is permitted those who act in the Revolutionary direction.”5
An unappreciated aspect of the French Revolution and its aftermath, the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on all of Europe, was its effect on the universities. This in itself was one of the most far-reaching of all revolutions.6 Before the French Revolution, despite the presence of Enlightenment scholars, the university was still what some term “medieval.” This means that its basic orientation was still formally theological. The triune God, His enscriptured and revealed word, and the ordained order of creation, were seen as the object of study, the ultimate source of knowledge, and the focus for all learning. Although the state had previously funded its universities in many cases, the state still saw itself and its universities as formally under God. The slow erosion of the theological foundations of society and learning were greatly stepped up by the French Revolution.
The university began to shift from a theological to a civil foundation, and Germany led the way. Scholars like Kant, Humboldt, Fichte, Hegel, Savigny, Schleiermacher, and others began to remake the university. It was now a civil agency, and the focus of the university and its learning was not on God but on the state. In 1492, Columbus, by his discovery of the Americas, gave centrality to an already developing era of exploration. There was a new world for man to explore and conquer. The French Revolution in its own way opened up what to many was an even more important new world, a man-centered world. The focal point of society was now not God but either man or the state.
A major consequence of this was its impact on the meaning of salvation. Whereas for orthodox Christianity salvation means regeneration by God’s grace with the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s atonement, for revolutionary men it means the change of political and economic systems by means of a political gospel. Sin is identified with those who uphold the “old order,” i.e., Christianity, a respect for orderly legal processes, justice as God’s revealed law, and so on. Knowledge is no longer tied to God’s order, or to any objective order: “knowledge merely reflects power.” It is a social construct of a class in power. Revolutionary knowledge means the denial of truth to anything other than the revolutionary creed. Within the church, this means liberation theology, which means that where revolutionists declare themselves to be the voice of an ostensibly oppressed group, the revolutionists and their views constitute virtue and knowledge. In place of the Biblical doctrine of sin, the revolutionists hold to a “belief that the evil of this world is unique to a political system, and can be overcome by political action on behalf of a rival social order.” This view marks humanists and Marxists alike. It means, “Morality is that which serves to destroy the old exploiting society.” For Christianity, salvation means faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ; there is then reconciliation with God. The new faith has no reconciliation, only annihilation. Salvation is only for the revolutionary party; all others must, like demons, be exorcised.7 This exorcism we see in all its murderous intensity in Marxist states; in other states, the drift is in the same direction. For modern man increasingly, like Gaius Marius of old Rome, evil is in other men, in the opposition, and the solution is to destroy them. Lacking any sense of either the depravity of man or the sovereignty of God, modern man sees himself as sovereign and other men as fallen and evil.
In the Book of Homilies of Edward VI, we have a statement which correctly assesses all men:
Because all men be sinners and offenders against God, and breakers of his law and commandments, therefore can no man by his own acts, works, and deeds, seem they never so good, be justified and made righteous before God; but every man of necessity is constrained to seek for another righteousness or justification, to be received at God’s own hands, that is to say, the remission, pardon, and forgiveness of his sins and trespasses in such things as he hath offended. And this justification or righteousness, which we so receive by God’s mercy and Christ’s merits, embraced by faith, is taken, accepted, and allowed of God for our perfect and full justification.8
These homilies were written for Renaissance men, for a generation which arrogantly assumed its own participation in divinity. Well after Edward VI, in 1604, we see this in George Chapman’s play, Bussy D’Ambois. When D’Ambois is fatally wounded, he is amazed that he is mortal and can die. He has no desire for grace from God but rather faces death with arrogant pride, and considers complaining to God about his wounding:
Is my body, then,
But penetrable flesh? And must my mind
Follow my blood? Can my divine part add
No aid to th’ earthly in extremity?
Then these divines are but for form, not fact.
Man is of two sweet courtly friends compact,
A mistress and a servant; let my death
Define life nothing but a courtier’s breath.
Nothing is made of nought, of all things made,
Their abstract being a dream but of a shade.
I’ll not complain to earth yet, but to Heaven,
And, like a man, look upwards even in death.
And if Vespasian thought in majesty
An emperor might die standing, why not I?9
When D’Ambois says, “Then these divines are but for form, not fact,” he declares theologians to be unrealistic. (His “divines” are, of course, Renaissance thinkers.) This does not make D’Ambois humble before God. He goes on to say,
The equal thought I bear of life and death
Shall make men faint on no side.10
D’Ambois belongs to the world of Marius, and the world of Marius is very much with us in Marxism, in modern education, in liberation theology, and more.
How far gone we are is apparent in the death of teaching and preaching on the sovereignty of God. Failure to recognize that God is the sovereign means that He is treated as a human resource, and Jesus Christ is seen as the great fire and life insurance agent. The church then becomes an ally of every modern Marius and his humanistic dream of justice.
The culture of the modern era is centered on man and the state. It has created a world in which men see salvation as the coercion of other men, and “all is permitted those who act in the Revolutionary direction.”11 It has made the twentieth century the bloodiest century of all history, with a higher percentage of the population being murdered than ever before, as G. Eliot, in The Twentieth Century Book of the Dead, has documented. The new foundation for society has demonstrated its deadly nature. ***
1. Otto Scott, Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (New York, NY: Mason & Lipscomb, 1974), 24.
2. G.P. Baker, Sulla the Fortunate: The Great Dictator (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, 1967), 215.
3. Ibid., 214.
4. Scott, Robespierre, 73.
5. Ibid., 205.
6. Daniel Johnson, “The Politics of the University: Reflections on the Legacy of Humboldt,” Salisbury Review 5, no. 2 (January 1987): 11.
7. Caroline Cox and Rachel Tingle, “The New Barbarians,” Salisbury Review 5, no. 1 (October 1986): 22-27.
8. The Two Books of Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches (Oxford, England: University Press, 1859), 24.
9. George Chapman, “Bussy D’Ambois,” in Hazelton Spencer, ed., Elizabethan Plays (Boston, MA: Little, Brown,  1940), Act IV, sc. 11, lines 77-90, 555-56
10. Ibid., 556.
11. Scott, Robespierre, 205.
(Taken from Sovereignty by R. J. Rushdoony, p. 89)
Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916-2001) was the founder of Chalcedon and a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical Law to society.
Article from Chalcedon.edu