By Rousas John Rushdoony
When men discuss epistemology, it is their desire to be as “objective” and “scientific” as possible, and to convey the impression that theirs is a concern with conclusions open to all men by any fair standards. The most reprehensible position for them is one which offers itself as an infallible truth, to be accepted on authority. They will assure you that it is precisely this kind of dogmaticism in Christianity that repels reasonable men. The goal of philosophical and scientific inquiry should be clearly ascertainable facts which are open to all thinking men. The conclusions should be readily provable or open to testing and verification in order to be acceptable.
The offense of Biblical faith has been its radically divergent position. Instead of beginning with man and man’s reason, it begins with God and His revelation. Instead of bringing all things to the judgment bar of man’s mind, it takes all things to the infallible word of God for a standard. The humanist regards such an appeal as the ultimate in intellectual bankruptcy and as a kind of scholarly obscenity. More than a few churchmen have agreed with the enemies of the faith at this point. They insist that they accept the authority of God’s word; they do regard it as valid knowledge, but only because it meets the requirements of their reason and Aristotle’s logic. Thus, Carnell declared:
Granted that we need revelation from God to learn how He will dispose of us at the end of our lives, are there not many revelations which vie for our approval? How shall we make a selection, when we are not God? We can answer this in a sentence: Accept that revelation which, when examined, yields a system of thought which is horizontally self-consistent and which vertically fits the facts of history. When viewing the Bible, the Christian says, “I see a series of data in the Bible. If I accept the system as it is outlined, I can make a lot of problems easy.” Bring on your revelations! Let them make peace with the law of contradiction and the facts of history, and they will deserve a rational man’s assent. A careful examination of the Bible reveals that it passes these stringent examinations summa cum laude.1
A number of comments can be made about this sorry statement. To cite a few, first, Carnell manifested a curious view of Scripture, if our “need” for it is “to learn how He will dispose of us at the end of our lives.” This is a humanistic approach and misses the entire thrust of Scripture. Second, there are not “many revelations which vie for our approval,” Carnell to the contrary. Prior to the Christian era, there was no purported revelation outside the Scriptures. What we call “the sacred books of the East” made no claim for themselves that is comparable to the idea of revelation. Since these books did not begin with a sovereign and omnipotent God, they had no word coming from such a God. The “sacred books of the East” are religious and philosophical writings, some of them atheistic, but they are not revelations.
Only after the beginning of the Christian era do we get ostensible revelations, in clear imitation of Scripture, such as the Koran and the Book of Mormon. The idea of a revealed word is Biblical. Only a sovereign, omnipotent, predestinating God can speak an infallible word, and the idea of such a God and such a word is not present outside the Biblical tradition.
Third, and most important, ultimacy and authority in Carnell’s system rest in “a rational man’s assent,” in the supposedly autonomous reason of man. What of that man’s sin and his radical hostility of God, his unwillingness to acknowledge God in any form or manner? Man’s reason is clearly affected by his sin and is used in man’s warfare against God. Carnell’s god is clearly not sovereign. The test of rationality is not the absolute rationality of God but the fallen reason of man. The God and the Bible who pass Carnell’s test summa cum laude are not the God and the Bible of Christian orthodoxy.
How true this judgment of Carnell is appeared in his study of Christian Commitment, An Apologetic (1957). It made no mention of the Bible, of its inspiration as a means of knowledge and a source of moral law. It is an exercise in existentialism and is an unhappy and painfully embarrassing effort. Initiative in salvation is given to man, which is consistent with the primacy of authority given to man’s reason. “The minimal elements in fellowship oblige us to believe that God is under the same necessity to extend his life to the humble as he is to withhold it from the proud.”2
Carnell does not seem to be aware that necessity outlaws grace. If man can compel God to a necessary action, then man is sovereign. All of Carnell’s efforts to play the rationalistic game added only to the credit of the humanists rather than to the cause of Christ. For the philosopher is first of all a creature made in God’s image who is either in obedience to God or in revolt against Him. We have seen how radically religious the presuppositions of epistemology are. They begin, not with “the facts” but with an act of faith.
Hear Max Stirner begin and end with an affirmation of absolute and ultimate authority, infallible authority:
…To the Christian the world’s history is the higher thing, because it is the history of Christ or “man”; to the egoist only his history has value, because he wants to develop only himself, not the mankind-idea, not God’s plan, not the purposes of Providence, not liberty, and the like. He does not look upon himself as a tool of the idea or a vessel of God, he recognizes no calling, he does not fancy that he exists for the future development of mankind and that he must contribute his mite to it, but he lives himself out, careless of how well or ill humanity may fare thereby…They say of God, “Names name thee not.” That holds good of me: no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated as my essence exhausts me; they are only names. Likewise they say of God that he is perfect and has no calling to strive after perfection. That too holds good of me alone. I am owner of my might, and I am so when I know myself as unique. In the unique one the owner himself returns into his creative nothing, out of which he is born. Every higher essence above me, be it God, be it man, weakens the feeling of my uniqueness, and pales only before the sun of this consciousness. If I concern myself for myself, the unique one, then my concern rests on its transitory, mortal creator, who consumes himself, and I may say: All things are nothing to me.3
Stirner, as an anarchist who believed in the ultimacy and absolute authority of his own will, had only contempt for atheists who were afraid to practice incest or bigamy. These men are still Christians, he held, because they acknowledge a law above their will, and a word beyond their word.4
Can we say that Freud, who shattered the idea of rational man, broke with the idea of an ultimate authority or word? True enough, Freud regarded reason as fraudulent in its claims and as a façade for dark, subterranean forces in man, but when we examine Freud’s doctrine of the unconscious, we find another form of the humanistic doctrine of infallibility.
Freud’s unconscious cannot lie. It is a perpetually true and pure spring of truth that wells up out of the hidden nature of man. Man’s’ id’ knows no inhibition in itself. It tells the truth, and the only problem a man has is to locate the proper psychoanalytic interpreter of his private well of infallibility. In an earlier era, men talked naively, and in semi-biblical language, of the divine right of kings, or of parliament, and some still talk of the ‘divine right of the people’ (vox populi, vox dei). Now the same doctrine of infallibility has a more sophisticated and a disguised format, but the content is the same.
Let us turn again to Sartre as he writes on epistemology:
The world is human. We can see the very particular position of consciousness: being is everywhere, opposite me, around me; it weighs down on me, it besieges me, and I am perpetually referred from being to being; that table which is there is being and nothing else. I want to grasp this being, and I no longer find anything but myself. This is because knowledge, intermediate between being and non-being, refers me to absolute being if I want to make knowledge subjective and refers me to myself when I thinkto grasp the absolute. The very meaning of knowledge is what it is not and is not what it is; for in order to know being such as it is, it would be necessary to be that being. But there is this “such as it is” only because I am not the being which I know; and if I should become it, then the “such as it is” would vanish and could no longer even bethought. We are not dealing here either with scepticism —which supposes precisely that the such as it is belongs to being — nor with relativism. Knowledge puts us in the presence of the absolute, and there is a truth of knowledge. But this truth, although releasing to us nothing more and nothing less than the absolute, remains strictly human.5
“Knowledge puts us in the presence of the absolute, and there is a truth of knowledge.” Sartre gets no further than himself, existential man, in his “knowledge.” Where existential man is ultimate, “all human activities are equivalent.” Man must free himself from external goals, from the idea of “values as transcendent givens independent of human subjectivity.” In fact, “it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.”6
Philosophy offers us simply an alternate authority, another word and another reason in the stead of God’s absolute rationality and God’s infallible word. Infallibility is not denied: it is transferred and concealed. Authority is not replaced by reason and science but simply transferred to reason and science, asking us to bow down before new gods, and to question them not, since they are by definition the essence of reason and true knowledge. The new breed of prophets gives us, with the utmost aplomb, their new word and asks us to bow before it, or to think only in terms of it. Max Planck declared, “Whatever can be measured exists.” This is not a conclusion but a presupposition, and it tells us how we are permitted to investigate reality, and also what reality is, i.e., that which can be measured. A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, in writing on “Can Quantum Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?,” in Physical Review, vol. 47 (1935), p. 777, stated:
The elements of the physical reality cannot be determined by a priori philosophical considerations, but must be found by an appeal to results of experiments and measurements. A comprehensive definition of reality, is, however, unnecessary for our purpose. We shall be satisfied with the following criterion, which we regard as reasonable. If, without in any way disturbing a system, we can predict with certainty (i.e. with probability equal to unity) the value of a physical quantity, then there exists an element of physical reality corresponding to this physical quality.7
These men have not, like Stirner, declared themselves to be infallible. They have declared that “the elements of physical reality” cannot be discovered or determined by “a priori philosophical considerations,” and certainly not by religious consideration. This latter is so preposterous they feel no need to mention it. We are asked to think that their thinking is a posteriori, after the facts, a reasoning from the facts to causes rather than vice versa.
Christian thinking which is faithful to its premises is neither a priori nor a posteriori, because it sees both causes and facts as derivative from the sovereign and ontological Trinity who is the maker of all things.
Having renounced a priori thinking and philosophy, these men then give us a “reasonable” criterion, an a priori conclusion and a presupposition. Basic to that criterion is a concept of reality as measurable and a closed system in terms of that. Within that closed system, there are openings for many possibilities, but the door is authoritatively and infallibly closed to the sovereign God of Scripture. The fundamental presupposition of the world view of these men is as authoritatively committed against the ontological Trinity as Scripture is to the triune God.
There can be, with scientists, polite palaver to the effect that God is an open question, but their presuppositions and methodology ensure that God cannot be considered. While operating on the assumption of a world which is rational and orderly because it is undergirded by the eternal decree of God, they insist on speaking of chance and probability rather than anything which points to and presupposes God.
The given, the presupposition, in any system of thought is held to be authoritatively and infallibly true. Reality is defined in terms of the presupposition, and all reasoning is circular reasoning in terms of what is implicit in the given. The thinking of the Greek philosophers is riddled with mysticism, occultism, and esoteric concepts. Aristotle had a public doctrine in his writings and an esoteric one for his pupils, and he assured Alexander the Great that the published writings did not reveal the secret doctrine.8
However, we are solemnly assured that “reason” and science were born with the Greeks because their premises were radically humanistic. This is the criterion of rationality, humanism. The hidden doctrine of modern thought conceals its infallible faith that God cannot exist, i.e., the God of Scripture. The other side of the coin is that the ultimate authority is scientific man.
Our politics today is the politics of infallibility. Dewey’s idea of the Great Community, the ideas of the democratic consensus, and the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat all have as their presupposition a doctrine of the infallibility of an elite group who represent the general will. The immediate source of this doctrine is in Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who held that “the general will is always right and ever tends to the public advantage.”9
All the murderous arrogance of modern political man stems from this doctrine of infallibility. All the attempts of the scientific and intellectual elite to rule man stem from their belief that they are this voice of the general will.
The doctrine of infallibility does not disappear when men deny it to God and His Word; it accrues to men. In the hands of men it becomes a doctrine of oppression. Thus, we need not apologize for the doctrine of infallibility, nor for an appeal to authority. These are common to every school of thought, and it is dishonesty to deny it. Carnell’s appeal was to reason, to his existential being as expressed therein. Stirner bowed low before his ego, scientists to themselves and their methodology, and the modern world in its political and social life to the general will. As a result of the doctrine of the general will, man has become group-oriented, and his standards and tastes are derived from the group.
Octavius Brooks Frothingham (1822-1895), a thinker of the Religion of Humanity, expressed plainly the essence of modernism as a belief in the infallibility of the hour and its demands. His “God” was Hegel’s world-soul expressing itself in every historical era and having no law or standard beyond the hour, so that the historical moment was and is the infallible voice of history, “God,” or spirit. Of course, what that inner meaning or expression of the historical moment is depends on the elite thinkers. According to Frothingham, on the infallibility of the historical hour, The interior spirit of any age is the spirit of God; and no faith can be living that has that spirit against it; no Church can be strong except in that alliance. The life of the time appoints the creed of the time and modifies the establishment of the time.10
This is the faith of modernism in religion, politics, the sciences, the arts, and every other area. The creeds all have their moment of truth, and they then pass on. Yesterday’s truth cannot be considered seriously today. Honor Calvin indeed, or Augustine, Aquinas, or Luther, for each expressed the truth of their hour, but pass on to the present and its needs. To separate ourselves from the infallible historical moment is death or at best irrelevance. As Frothingham stated it:
Humanity has but one life, breathes but one atmosphere, draws sustenance from one central orb. To be reconciled with humanity, to feel the common pulse, is life; to be alienated from humanity, to have no share in the common vitality, is death. The slightest material separation is felt disastrously.11
Isaiah had a better word: “Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?” (Isaiah 2:22).
- Edward John Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1952), 178.
- Edward John Carnell, Christian Commitment, An Apologetic (New York: Mac-
millan, 1957), 251.
3. Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), 386f.
4. Ibid., 47f.
5. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 218.
6. Ibid., 626f.
7. Cited in Levi, Philosophy and the Modern World, 557.
8. Benjamin Farrington, Greek Science, Its Meaning For Us (Penguin Books, 
1949), II, 156.
9. J. J. Rousseau, “The Social Contract,” Book II, chapter III, in Sir Ernest Barker,
ed., Social Contract, Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau (London: Oxford Univer-
sity Press,  1958), 274.
10. O. B. Frothingham, The Religion of Humanity, 3rd ed. (New York: G. P. Put-
nam’s Sons, 1875), 7f.
11. Ibid., 130.
Excerpt from ‘The Word of Flux’ by Rousas John Rushdoony. See more at www.chalcedon.edu.