Mr. Kalsbeek is a teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, Michigan.
“And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment.” I Chronicles 12:32
“God is dead!”
If German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he said that, God has been dead now for over one hundred years. Nietzsche saw the death of God as necessary if man is to arrive at his potential for greatness. However, a contemporary of Nietzsche, Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky, gave warning concerning the consequences of such a thing. He said through one of his characters in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, if God is dead, then everything is permitted.
So, who was right, Nietzsche or Dostoevsky? Nietzsche and his disciples believed that, with God out of the picture, enlightened man could now get down to the business of establishing a better society. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, was convinced that if man executed God, everything evil would be permitted and in fact carried out.
One need not look too deeply at the subsequent events of the twentieth century to see that Dostoevsky proved to be the better prophet, as the two main godless totalitarian systems of that century, Communism and Nazism, clearly demonstrate. Both were forms of social engineering based on scientific foundations designed to produce an earthly utopia. Communists saw themselves as creating the “new Soviet man” as described by Father Marx, and the Nazis would purify the human race and even create the “superman” breed of human as foreseen by Nietzsche. The staggering results are well documented: everything evil was permitted, and that with a vengeance! Tens of millions perished during the final solution of Hitler, in the gulags of Stalin, during the Cultural Revolution of Mao, and in the “Killing Fields” of Pol Pot!
And the evil continues, every conceivable form of it continues, even in American society! How could this happen? God was not always dead, was He? Isn’t it true that in the Middle Ages just about all of Western civilization believed in God? How then could God evolve (devolve?) this way in Western thought?
To understand these evil times and know what the church ought to do, modern-day sons of Issachar should have some understanding of the development of Western ideas that spawned this evil. (The danger of attempting to accomplish this in a brief article is that gaps in the history will inevitably result. On the other hand, not to attempt it would likely result in a frown from the late Francis A. Schaeffer, who once said that Christians suffer from viewing the world in “bits and pieces instead of totals.” So attempt it we will, but with some generous help from Gene Edward Veith, Jr.’s book, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture.1 ) For our discussion, the history will be divided into three not-so-precise time periods: premodern, modern, and postmodern times.
The premodern period of Western civilization is sometimes considered to be the period before the French Revolution of 1789.
During this phase of Western civilization, people and the culture as a whole believed in the supernatural. However, it was a period of tension among existing worldviews. Veith writes:
For over a thousand years, Western civilization was dominated by an uneasy mingling of worldviews—the Biblical revelation, classical rationalism, and even the remnants of native pagan mythologies. Often Biblical truth was compromised by human reason and pagan superstitions. Other times the Christian worldview emerged clearly and with authority.
During the Middle Ages (A.D. 1000-1500), Christian piety, classical rationalism and the folk-paganism of European culture achieved something of a synthesis. Although medieval civilization was impressive in its own terms, scholastic theology subordinated the Bible to Aristotelian logic and human institutions, sacrificing the purity of the Biblical revelation. Medieval popular culture further obscured the gospel message, often keeping much of the old paganism under a veneer of Christianity, retaining the old gods but renaming them after Christian saints.
In the 1500s and the 1600s Western civilization returned to its roots. The Renaissance challenged the somewhat muddled medieval synthesis, as the West returned to both of its sources. Renaissance humanism rediscovered and reasserted the Greeks; the Reformation rediscovered and reasserted the Bible. Both classicism and Biblicism came back to life in a purified form.
Myth, classicism, and Christianity—these three different world—views, in different configurations, defined the Western world for centuries. Not everyone was a Christian in the premodern world. Biblical Christianity was always in tension with its culture. Mythology and humanistic rationalism continually tempted the church.2
Not only was the church tempted, it often succumbed to the temptations. In the process the Roman Catholic Church would adopt many pagan holy days and celebrations. She would even accept much of what Renaissance humanism had to offer and adorn her cathedrals with paintings and sculpture which reflected it. Corrupt practices and false doctrines would fuel the fire of the great Reformation.
That being said, through it all Western civilization was still a civilization that could not deny the ultimate reality of the existence of God. But that would begin to change with man’s growing knowledge of the world in which he lived and his achievements in science and technology. Enlightened, modern man would question the wisdom of the past.
Reason would characterize modern times, man’s reason! That’s why it is sometimes called the “Age of Reason.” And science, which, it seemed, could explain everything, would be modern man’s god.
The view of premodern times that God was Creator and that He ordered the affairs of His creation by His providence was questioned more and more, as man’s understanding of the physical creation advanced in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Following, in the words of Veith, is one example of the results of this new “enlightened” way of thinking:
The trust in human reason and the rejection of the supernatural took many forms, but nowhere did the modernistic impulse reach further or more ambitiously than in the invention of the Marxist state. Marxism, beginning with the assumption of “dialectical materialism,” sought to find material, economic causes for all human problems. Marx reduced the human condition to issues of class struggle and economic exploitation. In doing so, he worked out a quasi-scientific alternative that would supposedly bring on an earthly paradise. Under communism there would be no private property. There would be no more exploitation. Under socialism individuals would find meaning by losing themselves in a large group. The economy and all phases of society would be planned for the good of the whole.
Soviet leaders put these seemingly “enlightened” ideals into practice with the Russian Revolution. But instead of bringing a worker’s paradise as the theory promised, oppression and brutality resulted, on a scale unparalleled in human history.3
It should be observed, however, that not all those who were “enlightened” rejected religion as did the followers of Marx. Veith explains:
This does not mean that Enlightenment thinkers entirely rejected religion. Rather they sought to devise a rational religion, a faith that did not depend upon revelation. The result was Deism. According to the Deists, the orderliness of nature does, in fact, prove the existence of a deity, a rational mind that created the universe. This God is, however, no longer involved in the creation. He constructed nature in all of its intricacy and then left it to run like a vast machine. Miracles, revelation, and the supernatural doctrines such as the incarnation and redemption are excluded on principle. According to this religion, human beings, armed with reason, are basically on their own.
The Enlightenment rejected Christianity but did affirm the existence of God, at least at first. There is, however, no need of a God who is not involved in His creation. Eventually, the deity withered away. Enlightenment rationalism saw the whole universe as a closed system of cause and effect. Every phenomenon must be understood in terms of a cause from within the system.4
So it is that God died!
And Charles Darwin buried Him!
While it was true that early enlightened man needed God to get the universe started (Deism), once Darwin’s Origin of Species arrived on the stage of history, it became clear that God was not even necessary to explain the origin of the creation. To the utter amazement of enlightened man, he discovered that God had never really existed! All along God had merely been a figment of his “enlightened” imagination.
Devastating would be the results! Not only would Communism and Nazism raise their ugly heads; another segment of the West, left without a God who demands moral absolutes, would make decisions based upon “what works.” Right and wrong would be decided by what appeared to work best for enlightened society. Was slavery wrong? Not necessarily, especially if it could be seen to benefit the economy. Was child labor as practiced in the nineteenth century wrong? No! Again, one only had to be able to see its economic benefits to answer that. Was stealing wrong? Yes, but not because it was a violation of God’s commandment. Rather, it was wrong because it was harmful to society. So it went. And so it continues to go. Yes, for modern man there were moral absolutes; not because God said so, but because enlightened man did.
When enlightened man put God to death, he in effect did away with truth at the same time. Although that did not become immediately obvious to modern man, postmodern man sees that very clearly. And so it must be! If He who is “the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)” does not exist, then neither does truth exist.
Exactly when the shift to postmodernism happened in the history of Western civilization is a matter of dispute. However, “Most scholars associate the postmodern shift with the counterculture of the 1960s. Many young people began questioning the fruits of modern civilization—technology, social regimentation, rational planning. They sought instead a way of life organically related to nature and free of moral and rational restraint.”5
In the words of Veith, their postmodern reasoning goes something like this:
If scientific rationalism cannot be depended on to give us objective truth, maybe there is no objective truth. Truth is relative, dependent on the individual’s experience and culture. Morality is also relative, a function of the individual’s choices and the prevailing cultural norms.
If truth is relative, one idea is as good as another. In the absence of any reliable means of arriving at truth—with both revelation and reason discredited—the only criterion for adopting a particular idea, if only provisionally, is desire. Reason is replaced by the pleasure-principle. Instead of people saying they agree or disagree with a proposition, we hear how much they “like” or “dislike” a particular idea. People pick and choose what they enjoy from a wide range of theories and religions, dependent solely on their personal preferences and choices. The intellect is replaced by the will. Moral issues are similarly relativized. “You have to decide what’s right for you,” we are told on the talk shows. “What’s right for one person might not be right for someone else.” “Who are we to judge?” Moral issues are not seen in terms of absolute transcendent standards as in the Bible, nor in terms of what is good for society as a whole, as in modernism. What makes an action moral or immoral is whether or not the person made a choice.
In a relativistic climate, the only remaining virtue is tolerance. The only philosophies that are wrong are those that believe in truth; the only sinners are those who still believe there is such a thing as sin.6
A Few Conclusions
So what must the present-day children of Issachar make of the progression of premodern, modern, and postmodern thinking of Western civilization?
In the first place, it should be clear from our discussion that the natural man develops in sin. This should not surprise us, since Scripture confirms it in Romans 1:21: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” (Also confer Genesis 6 verse 5.) The rest of Romans 1 demonstrates how the darkened heart of the natural man develops in his sin. In connection with this idea, Prof. Herman Hanko writes:
Through it all, God’s purpose is accomplished. It is in the way of this organic development of sin, although under the sovereign control and direction of God’s providence, that man becomes ripe for judgment. He shows in all his life that he will do nothing but sin—even when God gives him such great gifts as are found in the creation. The greater the gifts, the more man becomes worthy of his final punishment in hell.
Hence, in this sense, there is “organic” development of sin because it takes place along with and is inseparable from the organic development of the world of reprobate men.7
It should be noted, in the second place, that Western civilization has given birth to many false worldviews that currently plague Western society, some of which we will consider more specifically in future articles, the Lord willing.
Finally, children of Issachar should view this development of Western thought in connection with its influence on the church in Western society in light of Revelation 12. There the church is warned that Satan seeks to lead the church away from her God-ordained calling by casting “…out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman (the church), that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood” (Rev. 12:15). To avoid this flood the church must limit her scope of labor to preaching “the pure doctrine of the gospel,” administering “the sacraments as instituted by Christ,” and exercising church discipline “as instituted by Christ” (Confession of Faith, Article 29). To involve herself in the social and political concerns of the day spells trouble for the church.
To be understanding of the times means that the sons of Issachar never lose sight of the fact that Israel has been, is, and always will be at war (Gen. 3:15). This will not change until the Lord returns. Issachar must take warning from the decomposing denominational victims of Satan’s deluge as they increasingly befoul the contemporary, Western, ecclesiastical landscape.
Children of Issachar, understand the times and live!
1.Gene Edward Veith Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway Books, 1994).
6.Gene Edward Veith Jr., “Postmodern Times: Facing a World of New Challenges and Opportunities.” Modern Reformation September/October 1995:17-18.
7.Herman Hanko. For Thy Truth’s Sake. (Grandville, Michigan: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2000) 255.