Quick Links for Impatient Readers
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Swanson, Kevin. Apostate: The Men who Destroyed the Christian West. Parker, CO: Generations with Vision, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9853651-5-8.
Overview And Recommendation
“The Christian influence in the West has dissipated,” Swanson writes, “and my mission in this book is to chronicle how it happened” ; this should allow readers “both to better understand the present and to better prepare for the future” (15). His organizing analogy is the story of the pre-Flood “giants” (nephilim) who, as Swanson reads the passage (Genesis 6:4), constituted a “dreadful tribe of pre-diluvian men” who “arose out of the ungodly synthesis between the sons of God and the daughters of men,” much as the philosophical and literary “giants” of Western apostasy arose through an unwholesome mixture of Christian and Humanist ideas (with progressively less Christian and more Humanist content over time)(17-8). Just as these antediluvian “giants” used their status and influence to help the world along the destructive, anti-God path that eventuated in the Flood, so the philosophical and literary “giants” Swanson discusses have led Western culture away from Christianity and into self-destructive Humanism that ended “Western civilization,” leaving today’s Westerners groping after some viable replacement (13).
Following his preface (1-10), Swanson divides Apostasy into three parts: “Part 1 – The Nephilim” (13-187), “Part 2 – The Literary Nephilim” (189-266), and “Part 3– The Cultural Nephilim” (267-301). Discussion of thinkers in part one does not begin until page 37, pages 13-36 comprising preliminaries. In these introductory chapters, Swanson explains why he opted for the title Apostate (the “giants” discussed, whether or not they had ever professed Christianity themselves, all grew up exposed to Christian influences and had to grapple with a Christian cultural inheritance), and describes the competing worldviews of Christianity and Humanism (whereas the former sees God as the ultimate authority in all areas, the latter treats human beings as such).
The first part might be retitled “The Theoretical Nephilim” or “The Philosophical Nephilim,” since it concerns those innovators in the realm of ideas whom Swanson believes responsible for moving elite Western thought away from its early Christian basis, centered on God and Scripture, to a Humanist basis, centered on human experience, human wants and aspirations, and human reasoning ungrounded in faith and disregarding Scripture. This is the lengthiest and most cogent part of the text. It is profitable reading and should prove quite helpful to Christians trying to make sense of contemporary thinking and, more importantly, trying to bring their own thinking into conformity with Scripture. Thinkers in this part include Thomas Aquinas, who first proposed dividing knowledge between a “natural” sort requiring no faith or revelation and a “supernatural” sort requiring faith and dependent on revelation (37-43); René Descartes, who pushed forward the Humanist approach by trying to build a knowledge structure based exclusively on faith-free, revelation-free “natural” reasoning (44-50); John Locke, who applied “natural” or autonomous reasoning even to theology (51-60); Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who extended the Humanist approach into social planning, with special focus on education (61-76); Jeremy Bentham (as well as John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell), who applied faith-free Humanist reasoning to ethics (77-94); Ralph Waldo Emerson, who continued the trajectory into ethical relativism and embraced a compatible metaphysics influenced by Eastern religion (95-104); Karl Marx, who angrily applied the Humanist (or even a forthrightly Satanic) approach to political theory (105-124); Charles Darwin, who gave Humanists a “scientific” justification for dismissing God as irrelevant or nonexistent and, so, for continuing in their faith-free, Scripture-ignoring autonomous project (125-143); Friedrich Nietzsche, whose fairly honest and self-consistent understanding of the implications of the Humanist approach should have driven terrified readers back to Christ, but which instead proved foundational to later Humanist work, notably Psychology (144-155); John Dewey, who helped bring the Humanist project to full realization of its relativistic, certainty-eliminating, purely pragmatic theory of knowledge, and who helped ensure that American education would be conducted in accordance with, and would train new generations to share, the Humanist perspective (156-170); and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose consistently Humanist life and thought should, like Nietzsche’s, have driven terrified readers back to the Bible, but in fact helped spread a confessedly atheistic and nihilistic Humanist viewpoint to the broader culture (171-187).
The second part addresses literary “giants” who helped move the broader literate culture in the same Humanist direction. This part is briefer and less detailed than part 1, but still profitable reading. Swanson’s approach in this part is to discuss the life and work of selected authors, then to look at one work of each as illustrative of his Humanist trajectory. Authors and works discussed include William Shakespeare and his Macbeth, in which a pagan metaphysic replaces the Christian (198-211); Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose The Scarlet Letter misrepresents and caricatures his own Puritan heritage, biasing readers against the Christian gospel by portraying a harsh, unloving, graceless monstrosity in its place (212-231); Mark Twain, whose Huckleberry Finn misrepresents and caricatures Christianity and Christians in an even more extreme way, enabling him to assert the superiority of his Humanist ethic over a (fake) Christian one (232-247); and (together in one chapter) Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, whose The Old Man and The Sea and Of Mice and Men exemplify the Humanist approach to life in a fairly self-consistent manner that, for all its terrifying nihilism, has “struck a cord” or “spoken to the heart” of readers in our Humanist culture (248-266). Though I’m not sure I would object to every work in the ways Swanson does (Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea strikes me as so honest and consistent in its unbelief that it makes the same points about godless “life under the sun” as does the book of Ecclesiastes ), I’m pleased to see this effort to address the anti-Christian ideas lurking in “great” literature. When one reads philosophy or any sort of forthrightly argumentative or persuasive nonfiction, one can critically analyze and disagree with the work pretty readily. The natural tendency when processing fiction, whether in the form of written literature or presented as television or film (or in a theater), is for most quite otherwise. The tendency, at least if one wants to “enjoy” the experience, is to place oneself emotionally “into” the thought world of the work, to experience it in a manner very like “real life” itself. Thus, one may be shaped by the experience much as one is shaped by the genuine experiences of one’s day to day life. Most people’s tendency, in other words, is to let fiction “wash over them” unanalyzed, influencing and shaping them in subtle but cumulative ways they do not consciously perceive. My hope is that Swanson’s critique of these select works will suggest to Christian readers how they may begin critiquing other fiction that they consume, or at least wake them up to the fact that unbelieving fiction, whether “great” literature or popular entertainment, is not something Christians may safely “enjoy” for recreation, except insofar as they “enjoy” being intellectually “on guard” and ready to argue with and analyze what they formerly consumed passively as “entertainment.”
The third part seeks to address popular culture, with a focus on music (Eminem and Marilyn Manson are mentioned, among others). Swanson’s basic thesis is quite plausible: the products of popular culture—popular music, television, movies, and so on—spread Humanist ideas, or at least Humanist inclinations and emotions, to the broader society of people who do not read the “giants” of philosophy or of literature (except as required in school and quickly forgotten). His treatment of the subject, however, is superficial with a high reliance on Wikipedia as a source. Reading this part won’t cause you any harm, but it adds little to the text as a whole, and is a disappointment and anticlimax after the stronger materials preceding it. I am not saying that this part is “bad” or that I disagree with its basic slant; I just found it a disappointment after prior, better chapters. If Swanson prepares a new edition of the text, a complete rewrite of this part might be merited.
Basic overview done, here are a few quotations to give you a “taste” for Swanson’s thinking at its best (best, that is, displayable in brief quotations; some longer sections, such as his discussion of slavery [238-244], are also noteworthy):
- On Darwin: “A man’s worldview informs his science, his hypothesizing, and his interpretation of the data in his scientific inquiries. We are less interested in Darwin’s science than we are in his worldview, through which he filters his scientific data and forms his hypotheses” (129).
- On evolution: “The theory of evolution affects a man psychologically more than logically. Though it was only a half-baked, poorly supported scientific hypothesis, it still appealed to men who were running from God” (139).
- On Nietzsche: “Nietzsche openly admits that the idea of morality is impossible where there is no Absolute. In a materialist universe without a God, there can be no standard by which moral actions are to be measured. Yet if you read a paragraph or two of Nietzsche’s writings, you find him filled to the brim with moral outrage. But why all the moral outrage if humans are just advanced forms of cosmic dust randomly assembled in this form or that? Debating moral issues then makes no more sense than two dogs arguing over the benefit of table manners, or two pieces of dirt arguing over property rights.” (150-51)
- On Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea: “Hemingway’s worldview is self-contradictory. As with Nietzsche, he struggles to identify a fragment of purpose in life. Desperately, he wants to find honor and value in the struggle against the forces of the material universe. He wants to argue for a purpose in life, but his universe is indeterminate and material. There is no possibility of purpose in a purposeless universe” (259).
My recommendation? This is definitely a book you should read. Even if you are already familiar with the philosophers and literary figures discussed, you’ll find this a helpful faith-informed refresher. If you’ve not had much exposure to the works of Greg Bahnsen, Rousas Rushdoony, or others in the Theonomist branch of Van Tilian thought (think Chalcedon, Covenant Media Foundation), you’ll also find Apostate a not-overbearing example of that approach to consistently Christian thinking. (Van Tilians are Reformed thinkers who embrace the presuppositional epistemology and apologetics of Cornelius Van Til; there are a lot more Van Tilians than Theonomists. Though I don’t recall Swanson ever mentioning Van Til or using the word “Theonomy,” he does cite prominent Van Tilian Theonomist Rousas Rushdoony, and his expressed views entirely comport with those of Van Tilian Theonomists.) Though not myself a Theonomist, I think their work merits wider reading because it makes a good faith effort to treat God and his revelation (in Christ and in Scripture) as the axiomatic foundation and interpretive lens for all subjects, theoretical and practical. If you’ve not read anything else from this perspective, you may find Swanson’s Apostate a good first reading.
Overview and recommendation out of the way, on to cautions and criticism. My goal in what follows is to point readers to issues I think they should reflect upon as they read Apostate, not to “refute” Swanson. Overall, Swanson’s picture is a persuasive one: early Christian compromise (rejecting the idea that God and his revelation must inform all our reasoning) begins a process leading to progressive apostasy in later generations (rejecting the need to take God and his revelation into account in any of our reasoning, then finally rejecting the whole idea of God and revelation altogether). Nevertheless, Apostate contains some content that I find problematic and believe makes the book less effective than it could be. I will look at this problematic content under five headings: (1) “Is humanism’s problem that it places too much trust in reason? Should Christians be less reasonable?,” concerning Swanson’s references to reason, paradox, mysteries, and the like; (2) “Must one never reason independently, even as an exploratory exercise?,” considering Swanson’s typically Van Tilian rejection of “natural theology” or anything like it; (3) “Whom would Jesus execute?,” reflecting on an aspect of Swanson’s Theonomy; (4) “Is the medium the message or isn’t it?,” suggesting that Swanson’s perspective does not square with that of Neil Postman, even though Swanson cites Postman approvingly; and (5) “miscellaneous quibbles,” briefly stating a few items that I thought should be mentioned but did not think merited extended coverage.
Problem Content 1: Is Humanism’s Problem That It Places Too Much Trust In Reason? Should Christians Be Less Reasonable?
The first “giant” Swanson discusses is Thomas Aquinas, whose project he describes as “to create a comfortable synthesis between humanist philosophy and God-sourced revelatory truth” (39). Though unwilling to identify Thomas himself as an apostate (38), Swanson is emphatic that the effort at such a synthesis started the apostasy of the West and set the groundwork for later thinkers who would apostatize. Particularly objectionable to Swanson is Thomas’ heavy reliance on Aristotle. Swanson writes:
Thomas Aquinas really believed that natural man in his fallen state could build a reliable system of philosophical knowledge on “human reason.” He did not believe that man’s reason was seriously tainted by the fall into sin. How does this comport with the Apostle Paul’s warning for the Christians up in Greece about the “vain and deceptive philosophies” taught by the Greeks (Col. 2:8)? It’s hard to believe that the Apostle Paul was as gaga over Aristotle as was this “great” teacher of the 13th century. In an attempt to reconcile the Scriptures with the rising humanist university, Aquinas turned into the great apologist for this Greek who took his best shot at building his philosophy on defective human reason.(41)
Though doubtless Paul would not have been gaga over any pagan philosopher, I doubt he would have had any objection to those aspects of Aristotle’s thought that simply made explicit the rules of proper reasoning (logic) that he, as a creature of God, was able to discern even as he maintained a broader pagan belief system that failed to cohere with his trust in the validity of these rules. I would also emphasize that only human use of reason, not reason itself, can be called “defective.” In addition to making errors in reasoning, violating logic in ways that can be identified and corrected, one can also err by treating reason as though it were a source of new information rather than merely a tool for working with information one already has (such as the presuppositions or axioms with which one starts the reasoning process). Further, one can use the adjective “reasonable” as a stand-in for “appealing to me,” which is very common; in this case it is one’s use of the word “reasonable” that is defective. Once one allows that reason (logic) itself can be defective, one might as well stop trying to distinguish true from false ideas or to think through any issues or questions of any sort, since the only means at one’s disposal for doing so cannot be trusted.
Objection to too great trust in “reason” also figures prominently in the chapter on John Locke. A few quotations should give you the gist of Swanson’s argument:
- Swanson writes: “He [Locke] boldly attacked the Athanasian creed and other ‘tri-theistic’ accretions….Evidently, Locke’s pride could not tolerate the mysteries and incomprehensibility of the Godhead. By this time, human reason was king, and any apparent paradoxes were made to fit with ‘what seems right to us.’” (53) (Better wording here than “apparent paradoxes” would be “apparent contradictions,” since a paradox is an apparent contradiction that might actually be true and not a contradiction. “Apparent paradoxes” is redundant.)
- “ [Undoubtedly],” Swanson reasons, “it was his [Locke’s] confidence in human reason that led him to doubt the doctrine of the Trinity.” (56)
- After quoting a statement by Locke that, in part, observed that “it is impossible explicitly to believe any proposition of the Christian doctrine, but what we understand,” Swanson writes: “John Locke would have nothing to do with mysteries, even though the Bible is filled with them….All in all, he places far too high a trust in human reason. To say there is one God in three persons, all of the same essence, does not ‘make sense’ to human reason. Moreover, Locke fails to distinguish between the words ‘understand’ and ‘comprehend.’ While we may not fully comprehend the mysterious Trinitarian nature of God, it should not be difficult to understand what the Bible says about the Trinity. We may not be able to resolve the apparent paradox [that is, paradox or apparent contradiction] of the one and the three. But Locke wants to allow ‘latitude’ for the rational mind of the Anti-Trinitarian. If he cannot fully explain the doctrine and resolve the mysteries of it, he has the right [says Locke] to reject it.” (59)
Such criticisms as these would be more cogent were Locke described as having excessive faith in his own use of reason, particularly in that set of assumptions he used to guide his reasoning. Suggesting that Locke’s problem was that he placed too much trust in “reason” seems off the mark, since it was the presuppositions and inclinations fed into his reasoning, not the reasoning process itself, that led Locke astray. As well, it needs to be said that there is no apparent contradiction (paradox) in what Scripture says about God’s threeness in one sense (three persons) and oneness in another sense (one God) or in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity that organizes and explains what Scripture says. Some Christians, however, seem intent on treating the Trinity as a Zen koan rather than as truth revealed by a God who is not the author of confusion. (For example, some will assert not just that “God is three persons,” but that “God is one person” also. Playing with the definition of “person” may allow one to make these two statements without literally contradicting oneself, but why make such paradoxical statements at all when Scripture does not require it?) It is true that what God has revealed does not provide sufficient information to satisfy idle curiosity about the Godhead’s internal structure, so that attempts to describe the Trinity in terms of earthly analogies invariably mislead. Thus, one can say that the Trinity is “a mystery,” though it should be noted that this use of “mystery” is at variance with Scripture’s usage of the term, where (if memory serves) it always means “something previously unknown that is now being revealed,” not “something not fully revealed or, by its nature, too vast, complex, and glorious to be revealed to mere humans.” Though not Scripture’s usage of the term, this latter meaning of “mystery” certainly applies to the Trinity as well as to other matters, such as to how God’s working of all things according to the counsel of his own will (Ephesians 1:11) “fits” with humans’ responsibility for their decisions and for the universal human experience of free decision making. (Determinists among us may amuse themselves by calling free will “an illusion,” but even the most committed among them never stop exercising their free will, making decisions for which they are responsible.) However, while there may well be apparent (and real) contradictions in what some human thinkers have said in their efforts to explain or figure out more than what God has chosen to reveal, there should not in fact be any paradoxes, at least not any irresolvable ones, in what actually has been revealed. If your understanding of a biblical teaching is apparently contradictory (paradoxical), this is indication that your understanding still needs work, not that God has failed to speak clearly, coherently, and without contradiction. There is nothing godly or pious in going beyond what Scripture says to create “apparent contradictions” that one then tries to “believe,” anymore than it is godly or pious to rack one’s brain trying to determine what your name was before you were born or, if you prefer a more hackneyed koan, what the sound of clapping would be if you were to remove one of the two hands required by definition for there to be clapping in the first place. The Zen-like urge to embrace the (humanly unresolvable) “apparently contradictory” is the one aspect of Van Tilian presuppositionalism that Christians who would conform their minds to Scripture must learn to overcome.
That said, it is certainly true that persons like Locke have rejected as “unreasonable” revealed truths that are not unreasonable at all. There is nothing contrary to reason in setting forth an incomplete (not to be confused with an unresolvably paradoxical) understanding of a truth about which God has chosen to reveal only partial information. Reason is a tool for working with information available to the mind; it is not itself a source of information. In substance, then, Swanson’s critique of unbelieving “rationalism” (even the “rationalism” of empiricists like Locke) seems correct, though his Van Tilian locutions could use amending.
In addition to the Trinity, one “mystery” Swanson wishes to emphasize goes with his Calvinism: “We say that God foreordains the free actions of men, and we have no idea how He does it! These mysteries serve as major foundation stones for the Christian worldview. We openly acknowledge tension in these apparent paradoxes [that is, paradoxes or apparent contradictions], and demand humility from arrogant men who attempt to explain infinitude by human finitude” (60). Mere assertion of apparent contradictions, without effort to explain why the contradictions are only “apparent,” is not clearly any better than assertion of outright and blatant contradictions. After all, the only thing that distinguishes a true contradiction (contrary to God’s rational nature as light without darkness, yea without nay, and truthfulness that cannot lie) and an “apparent contradiction” is that the “apparent contradiction” can be resolved . Insisting on “believing” in “apparent contradictions” that human minds cannot resolve confounds the distinction. As well, it confounds an apologetic method that depends so heavily as Swanson’s does on demonstrating the inconsistencies and “[apparent?] contradictions” of unbelieving (Humanist) thought (consider his critique of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 101-3; see also his reference to “internal inconsistency and incoherence contained within the Nietzschean worldview,” 149). If one insists that properly understood Christian doctrines contain “apparent contradictions” God-given human reason cannot resolve (insoluble paradoxes), it is not clear to me how one can object to opposing belief systems based on their “apparent contradictions.” This is a persisting weakness in the Van Tilian system as typically expressed. Though laudable for calling Christians to let God and his revelation guide their thinking in all areas, the Van Tilian system will never be wholly viable so long as it retains the subtle irrationalism of irresolvable “apparent contradictions.”
It should also be emphasized that one can only show inconsistencies and self-contradictions or incoherence in an unbelieving thought system (such as Emerson’s) if one takes as given reliability of the reason one uses to judge such inconsistencies and the truth of the logic that tells one when two propositions contradict. Van Tilians are correct, I think, to emphasize that (at least some; Van Tilians say all) non-Christian systems fail to cohere with this presupposition that properly used reason and logic can be trusted. But note: even judgment of this incoherence in unbelieving thought requires that the person making the judgment already adopts the presupposition at issue.
Lest I be mistaken for an anti-Calvinist rationalist, I note that at present I see no way to reject the idea that God’s status as creator of all things (all matter, all energy, all space, and the entire sweep of time) necessarily implies that the eternal decree expressed in his creative act necessarily includes (and so foreordains) everything that ever happens, whether through unconscious forces or free decisions of created beings. I therefore don’t disapprove of Swanson’s statement that God “foreordains the free actions of men,” only to his passing over this assertion as an insoluble paradox that we must accept on faith. He permits unbelievers like Emerson no such easy escape. As an attempt at the defense or explanation Swanson fails to offer, I would note that the statement that “God foreordains the free actions of men” only becomes a contradiction if one insists on defining “divine foreordination” or “human free actions” in such a way as to force the contradiction. For instance, if one defines “human free actions” as “actions not included in God’s all-encompassing eternal decree and creation of all matter, energy, space, and the entire sweep of time,” then one has created a contradiction by insisting on a sort of “freedom” impossible for created beings. Similarly, if one insists on defining “divine foreordination” as “predetermining in such a way as to make freedom in human action and decision making illusory,” one has also created a contradiction. Any “apparent contradiction” goes away if one simply refuses to shove more detailed information into the terms than what God has provided in Scripture. I suspect (or at least hope) that this humble refusal to go beyond what Scripture reveals is in fact what Swanson and other Van Tilians really mean to call for with their unfortunate emphasis on the need to believe “apparent contradictions.” If it is, I hope that they will make this more clear in future writing and so avoid allowing unbelievers to say, “Well, our systems both have apparent contradictions we cannot resolve. Since our finitude seems to put wholly coherent belief systems beyond our reach, I suppose we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
In his chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Swanson observes that “Throughout his writings Rousseau clearly exalted human reason over divine revelation” (65). Here, again, Swanson lets stand a misunderstanding of reason. Properly understood, reason cannot be exalted over, humbled under, or in any other way set against or compared with divine revelation. Revelation is a source of information, a body of truth; reason is the method for processing and understanding information, including the information provided through revelation. If there are innate or self-evident ideas that are “deliverances of reason” (as more rationalist, less empiricist sorts likes Descartes would maintain), it would have to be said that these bits of information are part of the natural revelation provided to humans by God, recognized rather than created by reason. One can, of course, exalt other sources of information over divine revelation and then proceed to make those other sources the basis of one’s reasoning. This is what unbelievers do, and what the inconsistent believers and eventually apostates Swanson discusses also do. Objectionable, surely, but not properly described as an exaltation of “human reason.” Ironically, Swanson’s typically Van Tilian objection to unbelievers’ seeming overestimation of the powers of “reason” actually lets go unchallenged a widespread misapprehension of what reason is. Swanson in his analysis and critique of the “giants” relies upon and trusts reason no less than the persons whose lives and works he shows contrary to faith; where he and the “giants” differ is not in how much they trust reason, but in what sorts of information they choose to base their reasoning upon. Were this point made clear, Swanson’s critique would be all the more powerful.
Swanson’s complaints that the “giants” of Humanist thought overvalue “human reason” continue throughout the text. My hope is that the preceding criticisms will allow readers to correct these complaints as they read and thereby better profit from the text.
Problem Content 2: Must One Never Reason Independently, Even As An Exploratory Exercise?
Returning to Swanson’s chapter on Thomas Aquinas, we read: “Contrary to what Aquinas taught,” Swanson writes, “the Bible does not present two different kinds of thinking or knowledge (Proverbs 2:1-6, Col. 2:1-3).” Rather, “the source of all knowledge,” whether acquired through special or general revelation (Scripture or nature), “is God Himself” (42). Thus, he argues, Psalm 19 and Romans 1:18-22 must not be understood as justifying a project of natural theology such as undertaken by Thomas: “the source of knowledge that comes by way of this natural revelation is not human reason. For God has shown it unto them according to verse 19, so it is clear that God is the source of this knowledge as well. Therefore,” he concludes, “the Bible would never commend a philosophy that was not rooted in divine revelation but rather assembled purely by man’s reason, as Aquinas proposes” (42). While not unpersuasive, this may be overstated. The difficulty is that Romans 1:19 doesn’t say how God has shown what he has to those who’ve only been exposed to natural revelation. Has he shown it to them through innate ideas implanted in them from conception and impossible for them to ever truly reject? Has he shown it to them by giving them a belief-in-God-forming perceptual apparatus that inclines them to theism upon encountering nature much as seeing and hearing incline them to believe in externally existing objects and sound sources? Or has he shown it to them by giving them a rational faculty (reason) that, properly used, must draw the conclusion that God exists and has certain qualities? All of these sorts of divine self-revelation have been suggested as the focus of this verse and Swanson’s arguments do not strike me as sufficient to make us choose one over the others. Perhaps all these means and more are included; Scripture doesn’t seem to specify.
Swanson’s discussion of René Descartes also includes at least one passage meriting comment. After pointing out the inescapable circularity in the famous “I think, therefore I am” line of reasoning (the “I am” is assumed throughout the process)(48), Swanson contrasts consistent Christian thinking with Descartes’ effort at autonomous philosophizing as follows:
We [Christians] know that we cannot begin with the proposition of our own existence (or our own thinking, or our own doubting, for that matter), because “the beginning of knowledge is the fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 1:7). We cannot begin to know anything with certainty without first assuming God’s existence and fearing Him. It would be…ultimate intellectual rebellion to pretend that God did not [better, might not] exist while we go about proving our own existence (or anything else); for nothing could exist if God did not exist (Acts 17:28)….According to the Bible, the most fundamental truth is God’s existence, and any knowledge of God must be attended by the fear of God. The Christian understands that the first and most believable propositions are not those that “occur to us.” The first and most believable proposition is that which God speaks. “Thy Word is truth” says Christ (John 17:17). However, according to Descartes, his own existence and his own doubting are more fundamental truths. He knows that he exists…[but] is not so sure about God’s existence yet.” (49)
Since persons who, at least so far as they are consciously aware, doubt God’s existence are a good deal more numerous than persons who seriously doubt their own existence (or, to better fit the doubt, “more numerous than collections of thoughts seriously doubting the existence of the ‘person’ to whom those thoughts ostensibly belong”), it does seem that Descartes’ inclination to take his own existence and the reality of his own thinking as more obviously true than God’s existence is widely shared. Is there any place for starting from within the realm of human experience and seeing where exercise of one’s rational faculty leads? Admittedly, an explicitly atheistic and evolutionary presuppositional framework calls into question just why one should assume that the results of one’s reasoning should correspond with truth or reality (“things as they are”). It is likewise true that an explicitly Christian theistic presuppositional framework comports well with the expectation that one’s reason should prove fundamentally reliable, albeit subject to mistake and misuse (violations of logic, adoption of incorrect presuppositions). However, is there no place for the intellectual exercise of suspending selection of one or the other of these presuppositional frameworks? However abortive Descartes’ efforts might have been, need we assume that every such exercise must be disallowed?
A related area where Swanson objects to efforts at Scripture-independent reasoning is jurisprudence. He warns: “if one reverts to ‘natural law,’ he will eventually use it to excuse all kinds of atrocities! Animals kills their mates…[etc.]” (92). In this, Swanson shares a popular but mistaken understanding of what “natural law” advocates mean by the term. “Natural law” is not a legal or ethical system inferred from what one observes in nature. Rather, it is the law of our God-given nature as human persons. Within the Christian system, advocates find justification for belief in such law in Romans 1, and they hold that one needn’t embrace Scripture to find the concept rational. Geisler and Turek’s Legislating Morality is one notable outworking of the concept. Though Geisler and Turek do not seem to me to portray Theonomists accurately and fairly, so that Legislating Morality fails as a critique of Theonomy, they do portray their own contrary approach and its implications clearly. Before embracing Swanson’s “biblical law or nothing” approach (Theonomy), you may want to ensure that you’ve understood the competing “natural law” approach Swanson urges you to reject.
Problem Content 3: Whom Would Jesus Execute?
Speaking of Theonomy….It is in his chapters on Jeremy Bentham (with John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell) and Ralph Waldo Emerson that Swanson’s Theonomy stands out most clearly. Though he notes well before this that he believes consistent Christian thinking requires that God be our authority in lawmaking (34), in these chapters Swanson forthrightly sets forth his belief that Old Testament law not only reveals the holy and just character of God, making known his moral nature and showing what final judgment might hold in store for those who do not receive God’s gracious salvation, but provides the proper basis for contemporary lawmaking. “Biblical law,” he notes, “is careful to preserve the family as the foundation of human society, and prevent the sort of destruction we are experiencing now in the Western world. That is why there are laws against the sexual sins of adultery (Deut. 22:22-25), fornication (Deut. 22:28), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22)…[etc.]. Some believe,” he adds, “these Old Testament principles apply only to God’s covenant people, but Leviticus 18:27,28 gives the basis for these laws and applies the principle to pagan nations as well” (94). Not only should Christians “preach the law as a means of convicting sinners of their sin and driving them to Christ,” they should “subscribe to God’s holy law in all their spheres of activity and influence” and “use the law as a restraint to the potential wickedness of men” (85). A hallmark of Theonomy is the call to enforce the sanctions of Old Testament law in contemporary lawmaking, and Swanson seems to favor this. Observing that homosexuality is among the “more reprehensible sins” that God calls “abominations,” Swanson notes that “According to Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:17, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and Romans 1:26-27, it is a destructive sin which calls for both temporal and eternal judgment” (90). Swanson emphasizes that “the God of the Bible does not tolerate it with his covenant people, nor with pagan states like Sodom and Gomorrah (as is clear from Judges 19 and Genesis 19)” (88). Noting how British Judge William Blackstone “argued strongly for the death penalty for homosexuals in his Commentaries published in 1769,” how the original “thirteen American colonies provided death penalty laws for sodomy or ‘buggery’,” and how persons were executed for public acts of sodomy as late as the 1780s, Swanson writes: “If the Bible considered the sin ‘abominable’ and corrupting of the land itself (Lev. 18:22-29; 20:13), Christian society would take these warnings at face value” (98). Alas, “Somewhere between 1700 and 1900, most of the organized Christian church in Europe and America took a strong stand against the Law of God” (86).
Antinomians that we are, such expressions of approval for execution of homosexuals tend to evoke a strong negative reaction among us contemporary Christians. (Since Genesis 9:6 comes well before the body of laws given specifically to ancient Israel, we are typically more comfortable with execution of convicted murderers, though this comfort is not universal among us.) Though I accept that our subjective emotional reactions are irrelevant and that it is only God’s will as discerned through properly interpreted Scripture that counts, I am not (yet) persuaded the Theonomists’ perspective is correct. The second of the two great commandments upon which hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:36-40; see also Matthew 7:12), and so in terms of which the law and prophets must be interpreted, requires us (reading Matthew 22:39 in light of Matthew 7:12) to always do unto others as we would have them do unto us (were we fully cognizant of what was truly in our best interests). If we were homosexuals aware of God’s moral perspective, and so aware that our bondage to same-sex attraction was a death-deserving abomination in his sight, we should surely wish to be presented with the offer of God’s gracious deliverance and to receive all possible assistance repenting of and forsaking our sin. (If we were unaware of God’s moral perspective, of course, we should want first of all to be informed of that perspective.) It seems unlikely to me that what we would wish done unto us would be that we be tried for sodomy or buggery and then, if convicted, executed. Perhaps it is Swanson’s position that the first great commandment to love God above all else (including other humans) requires going against love of neighbor in this case. Alternatively, perhaps he believes that tolerance of homosexual practice so inevitably and severely damages the social fabric that the only way to show love for the vast majority of one’s neighbors is to withhold love from neighbors who engage in the society-destroying “abomination” of homosexuality. The second of these seems more probably Swanson’s position, but it may be that neither quite matches what he or other Theonomists would wish to argue on the subject.
Admittedly, even if we reject the Theonomist position, the fact that God ordained execution of homosexuals in ancient Israel does still require explanation. Though I am not generally a fan of Meredith Kline (his abuse of the Genesis creation account prevents that), I find an appealing (possible) solution in his concept of “intrusion ethics” (the idea that harsh sanctions in Old Testament law, or harshness in divinely ordered Old Testament actions, were educational “intrusions” of final judgment ethics into the pre-judgment period of God’s gracious forbearance). Old Testament law undoubtedly still reveals God’s moral character and sense of justice; but can one assume, in Theonomist fashion, that sanctions imposed in the Old Testament should be enforced today? Or might insistence on enforcing them amount to usurping God’s prerogative to determine when and how to take vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:35; Psalm 94:1; Romans 12:19)?
Problem Content 4: Is The Medium The Message Or Isn’t It?
Though Swanson tips his hat to Neil Postman‘s Amusing Ourselves to Death, even adopting the section heading “The Medium Is The Message” (282), his belief that the problem heretofore has been that anti-Christian forces have monopolized the media (271), and that such developments as successful Christian film making (293) and Christian radio talk shows give us hope for a brighter future, suggests he does not really embrace Postman’s argument. Postman did not maintain that the problem with non-print communication media (telegraph, radio, television) was their bad content. Their problem (Postman maintained) is that, by their nature, they only lend themselves effectively to a certain sort of content: short bits of simplified and fragmentary information, unlike the full and coherently presented verbal discourse of print. Attempts to use non-print media for serious communication, however well-meant, actually end up distorting the serious material one is attempting to communicate, thus making for corrupt and confused discourse. Had Postman been an evangelical Christian (I’ve never heard that he was), he might have pointed out that the complexities of Christian faith (meaning the entire informational or propositional content of the Bible, including all that is stated and all that is necessarily inferred therefrom) require that believers become literate and embrace a communicative culture of print; otherwise there is no hope of truly effective expression, dissemination, and life application of the faith. Pictures and oral story telling never get one beyond the rudiments of a simplistic and unexamined belief system. Postman’s lament was not that there was so much garbage on television (and on all the secondary media forced to follow its lead, such as radio), but that television by its nature can only do a good job at communicating when what it communicates is garbage.
If one sees Postman’s thesis as at all valid, one will not see any great promise in (for instance) “Christian-themed films” (293): films shape emotions and may suggest or introduce ideas; they cannot explore and analyze them, much less permit viewer interaction with them, without becoming too boring, too un-entertaining, to hold anyone’s interest. Postman was careful to emphasize that media always favor by their nature certain types of communication, and that using media for communication types contrary to their nature (such as using television or television-age radio or film for lengthy, complex, rational discourse) is never very effective. Christians with skill in film and other new media should certainly do what they can to point consumers of the media to Christ, but for true cultural transformation to be even a remote possibility will require, if Postman’s thesis has any validity, breaking the ubiquitous addiction to multimedia and turning large numbers of persons back to reading and writing as their dominant means of receiving, sharing, and discussing information. (I don’t see this as a realistic possibility. But, then, I’m a premillennialist, so needn’t entertain hope that a new and better future society will arise from the ashes of the West. If Swanson is true to Theonomist stereotype, however, he will be a postmillennialist, and so feel obligated to find hope for the future.) One may well judge Postman’s thesis overblown, but if that is what one believes, one does not believe that the medium is the message; rather, one believes that the same medium may be effectively adapted to various messages.
(Aside: Postman’s thesis about the pervasive dominance of television over other media seems favored by how the World Wide Web moves more and more toward television-like sound-and-pictures multimedia, and more and more away from print-like readable text, as technology makes this possible. For now, text is still prevalent, though there seems a tendency to shorten and simplify expression to suit the television-trained short attention spans of the majority. An illustration: What percentage of readers do you think will reach the present sentence of this long review?)
Problem Content 5: Miscellaneous Quibbles
Lest we be tempted to use Swanson’s analysis to shift responsibility for evil actions from human actors to corrupting influences, we should emphasize that what makes us find corrupting philosophy and literature, or corrupting music and video, appealing in the first place is corruption in ourselves (Mark 7:18-23). It is only by finding and filling a “need” in our deceitful heart that the “giants” among the intellectual and creative elite, as well as the not-so-giant manufacturers of popular culture, are able to affect us. This point was not emphasized by Swanson; perhaps it should have been.
When you mean “reluctant,” say “reluctant.” Don’t substitute “reticent.” “Reticent” means “reluctant to speak” or “inclined to silence”; it is not a synonym for “reluctant.” While it is true that longstanding misuse of the word has led dictionaries to start including “reluctant” as a secondary meaning of “reticent,” the word’s etymology (it’s from Latin “to be silent”) opposes this. And, besides, hasn’t lazy usage corrupted enough English words already?
Footnoted sources should give readers some justification for believing whatever claim is footnoted is true or factual or at least the confirmed opinion of an expert on the topic. References to Wikipedia, in contrast, say, “take this claim with many grains of salt,” or “fact-checking not guaranteed,” or “who knows if this is true or not?” A Wikipedia citation no more validates factual claims than would a generic “found on the Internet” citation. Wikipedia’s value is on par with asking friends what they think, suspect, or have heard about a topic: it can be a great place to start one’s exploration of a subject, but it surely shouldn’t find its way into a book or paper’s footnotes. By all means, use Wikipedia in your preliminary investigations. But, please, don’t cite it as an authority in published work!
In a few places, such as when he lists “before Darwin” and “after Darwin” statistics (138-9) and relates various post-Sartre statistics (185-6), Swanson risks mistaking correlation for causation or engaging in the “after this, therefore because of this” fallacy. Be on the lookout for this as you read.
End Of Review
An abridged version of this review is also posted, less nicely formatted, on Amazon.com.