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No. 36: The Case Against Western Civilization, Part 1

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 36
Copyright (c) 1997 Biblical Horizons
October, 1997

Part 1: Introduction

The collapse of the Western tradition in the United States, seen in the hostility to Christianity in government and education, and the elimination of "traditional" or "canon" learning from our institutions of middle and higher learning, provides a crisis and an opportunity for serious believers at the beginning of the third millennium. These essays are an invitation to think squarely and forthrightly about what the Christian agenda should be. I am taking up from two previously published essays. The first is my booklet, Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, published by Transfiguration Press and available from Biblical Horizons for $3.50. The second is the essay, "The Great Hangover," published in Biblical Horizons Nos. 74 & 75, available for $2.00 from Biblical Horizons .

I submit that to far too great a degree, Bible-believing Christians are allowing Roman Catholics and secular conservatives to do their thinking for them. Both of these groups advocate a return to the synthetic culture called "Western Civilization," an unholy (and unstable) mixture of Greco-Roman paganism and Biblical religion. Many writers in these groups are brilliant and sometimes have penetrating insights, but this does not change the fact that what they advocate is basically a mixture of Baal and Christ. The so-called "canon" of Western literature is such a mixture, often including far more non-Christian work than Christian work. The situation as regards political philosophy in Western Civilization is, if anything, worse.

Because Bible Christians are often not highly educated, and often are rather easily intimidated, they find themselves drawn to conservative writers and thinkers. A few years ago, for instance, the work of a secular conservative, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, was all the rage in evangelical Christendom. There was virtually no critical interaction with this book.

The lack of a strong intellectual presence among Bible Christians in America has meant that the game has gone to Roman Catholic thinkers, and their fellow-travellers, by default: William Buckley, John Neuhaus, and Russell Kirk, for instance; and such publications as First Things, Chronicles, and Modern Age. These man and the many others like them have much good to say, but essentially they want to turn back the clock to a situation where pagan and Christian thinking is merged into the "Western" synthesis. To be sure, they tend to read the pagan Greeks and Romans through Christian eyes, creating imaginary Platos and Ciceros who did not ever really exist. But also, they do not take a high view of the Scripture, especially of the societal directives God spoke to Israel at Mount Sinai, and thus are much influenced by pagan ways, often without realizing it.

As mentioned above, Western Civilization is over. That is to say, the tradition of that civilization has been broken now by two generations of ignorance and apostasy, extending from the "Sixties" to today. Therefore, the question before us as Bible Christians is this: Do we strive to restore that tradition, or should we look to the Bible and strive to create something better?

I imagine most Bible Christians would answer that we should strive to create something better. Yet, as I myself look at the Church, the Christian education movement, and the world of Christian commentary today, I come to the conclusion that a good deal of deeper reflection is needed on this issue. Many Christian schools, for instance, now advertise that they offer "classical Christian education." Does that mean "old-fashioned Christian education"? (which might be a problem in itself). Or does it mean "a combination of the best of the Bible with the best of the classical Greeks and Romans," which is much more of a problem? Are these schools teaching Latin or Hebrew as a foundational tool for life? Is the school day organized liturgically around the psalter, and is music given as much prominence as language and literature?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and in a sense I cannot know them. For one thing, all these schools are different, with different people involved in them. For another, such leaders as there are in this "classical Christian education" movement are certainly learning as they go, so what they advocated five years ago might be under revision today. My purpose in bringing the matter up is not to criticize these earnest Christian educators; far from it. They are probably doing among the best work in Christian education that is being done. Rather, I bring them up simply as a way to illustrate the overall concern of these essays. Perhaps some of those involved in the endeavor of Christian education will read these essays and be stimulated by them, as we all strive to lay a more solid foundation for future generations.

Moreover, I don’t believe that it is possible to restore the tradition we call "Western Civilization." The attempt to do so is a waste of time and effort, tilting at windmills. As I pointed out in Through New Eyes, chapter 3, cultures are symbolic structures made up of a worldview (symbolizing the world a certain way) operating in a tradition. Once that tradition is gone, the culture cannot be put back together. Cultures are not like stones in a wall, which if it crumbles can be rebuilt. Rather, cultures are like Humpty Dumpty. When an egg and its yoke are broken, then all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put it back together again. When a culture is gone — and ours is — the only valid possibility for the future is to lay the foundations for a new culture. Within the history of a culture, a Josiah can rebuild it; but when a culture is gone, new Abrahams are needed. When things fall apart, and the center can no longer hold, we must be Abrahams. Otherwise the rough beast will take over Bethlehem.

Well then, just what is "Western Civilization"? The term was apparently coined originally by G. K. Chesterton, himself a very insightful Roman Catholic thinker, around a century ago. It is as a culture declines that it begins to have names for itself, for it sees itself as already "in the past," and thus objectifiable. I don’t know for certain what Chesterton meant by the term, but generally speaking, Western Civilization is a culture that grew up out of the classical world of Greece and Rome under the influence of the Bible. It is mostly a mixture of these two sources. At various times, one or the other has been predominant.

Now, what I have just written is a very general characterization. A very brief summary of the history of that civilization will show some of the ins and outs. Let us begin with the Apostolic Era itself, the time when the so-called "New Testament" was written. There have been those who have tried to argue that the thinking of the apostles was a Divinely-authorized synthesis of the so-called "Old Testament" with the best of pagan thinking. This is, frankly, rather easily demonstrable nonsense, but it crops up from time to time, so we can address it here. Supposedly, there is a new, more "inner" and more "otherworldly" kind of ethics and spirituality in the NT writings, over against the more "outer" and "this-worldly" thinking found in the OT. Now, nobody familiar with the Psalter and with Ecclesiastes would ever imagine such a thing. The so-called OT is every bit as "inner" and "otherworldly" as the so-called NT. And if we pay attention to what Paul and Jesus, etc., were saying, their message was every bit as "outer" and "this-worldly" as that of Moses and the prophets.

Or, supposedly the NT Greek word for "Church," ekklesia, alludes back to the Greek city-state of five hundred years earlier. Gimmeabreak, woudja? The NT usage of the word ekklesia is completely and thoroughly grounded in the OT words for the organized assembly of God, grounded in concepts current in Israel from the beginning and actively present in the Jewish culture at the time the NT was written. It has nothing to do with how Greeks in another civilization had used the word five centuries earlier, except as the term coincidentally connotes many of the same concepts (a gathered people organized as a government). As regards ekklesia, the only thing that flowed from Greek civilization to the Jews was the sound of the word and its general applicability; the content came from the Bible and from the Israelite traditions. (For a full discussion, see my book The Sociology of the Church, photocopy available from Biblical Horizons for $10.00.)

All one might credibly argue is that certain philosophers and religious traditions in Greece had prepared the way for the Greeks to receive the Biblical revelation, so that many similar concepts are found among these Greeks. To argue this way, however, is to radically misunderstand both the Greeks and the Bible, as we shall see.

The early post-Apostolic Church was engaged in spiritual warfare with the Greco-Roman civilization, and was not interested in forming any kind of synthesis with it. Even in this time, however, many of the leading thinkers of Christianity were adult converts from philosophy, and they brought with them a great deal of pagan baggage. With the conversion of Constantine and the recognition of Christianity as true religion, things changed. Many people came into the orbit of the Church who were only scantily discipled, and with them came a host of pagan concepts and practices.

Meanwhile, as Christianity moved into the tribal cultures of Northern Europe, it was the Bible and not a Greco-Bible synthesis that took hold. Early European Christianity, during the troubled times called "dark ages," sought to ground its social and political thinking directly on the Bible, without the "benefit" of Roman law and Greek philosophy. The result was great social progress (especially considering the barbarism of the tribes when they were initially converted).

As time went along, however, the Church became "rigid, corrupt, and obtuse," to quote Page Smith. In the 1400s, we find a revival of interest in Greek civilization, a result of a new communication between Rome and Constantinople. Smith writes "concerning the newest intellectual fad — Greek thought and culture. The result was what came to be called Christian Humanism, a movement that sought to elevate man, the noblest work of the Almighty. One consequence was the inevitable diminishment of God. An infatuation with things Greek soon became a weapon against the stifling authority of the Church. If one considered the matter to a degree objectively, it was a most curious development . . . . The moment of high Greek, or, more accurately, Athenian culture, was as brief as it was brilliant. It lasted roughly fifty years. It changed nothing in the manner of men’s and women’s lives. I think it is safe to say that much as it enhanced the artistic and intellectual life of the race [which I question — JBJ], the world would be much the same today without it. The actual lives of the Greeks were as far from the ideal image of, say, Plato’s Republic (which was, in fact, a rigid dictatorship) as one could well imagine. The history of the Greek city-states is a history, in the main, of continual external wars and internal chaos.

"Moreover, the Greeks were an intensely proud and exclusive people, contemptuous of the barbarian (as they put it) cultures around them. What the obsession with Classical, and particularly with Greek, culture meant was that (using St. Augustine’s system) the city of man found a religion opposed to that of the city of God. That philosophy represented, to be sure, a substantial misreading of Greek thought. By a process of transmutation, the often wildly irrational Greeks were put forward as the exemplars of rationality, science, and reason."

[Page Smith, Rediscovering Christianity: A History of Modern Democracy and the Christian Ethic (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), pp. 32-34. Smith is regarded by many as the "dean of American historians." This book of his is a curious mixture of good Christian ideas and extremely bad economics.]

Although the Greeks and their ideas came out in the open as opponents of Christianity during the Renaissance, Greek and Roman ideas had come to influence Western Christendom earlier. All along, the European tribes had admired Rome, and even as they used the Bible as their fundamental law, they also wanted to be "Roman," thus calling themselves the "Holy Roman Empire." In the high "Middle Ages," the philosopher Aristotle came into influence in Western Christendom as a result of contact with Arabic civilization, where Aristotle had experienced an earlier revival. And, sadly, many Western theologians had all along perpetuated the Platonic ideas found in the writings of early Church mystics like Pseudo-Dionysius.

The rediscovery of Greece and Rome and the rise of modern paganism resulted in the growth of statist absolutism in Europe, which was briefly countered by the Reformation. The Reformation, however, did not make a complete break with classicism, as it should have. Roman stoic ideas of virtue and law found their way into almost every Reformer’s and post-Reformer’s writings (except Luther’s, who boisterously rejected everything pagan). Later on, the Puritans, who sought in so many ways to be consistent with the Bible, continued to educate their children in Latin and in Greek and Roman authors. Their grandchildren became Unitarians. No surprise.

(See two essays by Peter Leithart available from Biblical Horizons : "Stoic Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life," and "That Eminent Pagan: Calvin’s Use of Cicero in Institutes 1.1-5." See also, if you can find it, Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Flight From Humanity.)

All along, of course, the Bible had its leavening influence, but generally not at the top. People educated in the Bible as children often became liberals once they read the "classics." Education and government remained heavily influenced by paganism.

(If you can find them, two excellent studies of the history of Christianity in Western Civilization are by Rousas J. Rushdoony: The One and the Many and World History Notes. Each of these has been published more than once. I no longer know how to obtain copies.)

With this brief background, let us now consider some factors in culture and civilization, as we attempt to do better than our forefathers.



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