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Christianity and Progress

Written by Gary North on July 9, 2016

The origin of the idea of progress was exclusively Western; in fact, it was originally a Christian idea. Only with the widespread acceptance of the biblical concept of linear time did men begin to believe that there could be earthly progress. They began to act in terms of a view of life that says that whatever a man does lives after him, and that future generations will be different to some degree because he lived, worked, and died exactly when he did.

Nevertheless, linear history is not, in and of itself, progressive history. Something more was needed: the idea of compound growth, or positive feedback. It is not simply that history is linear; it is that it is also progressive. Such a view of history rests squarely on Deuteronomy 28:1-14. It also rests on the notion of covenantal reinforcement, as described in Deuteronomy 8:18:

>i>But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.

This is positive feedback: covenantal faithfulness brings external blessings from God, which in turn are supposed to reinforce people’s confidence in the covenant, leading them to greater faithfulness, bringing them added blessings, and so forth. It was the postmillennial optimism of early Calvinism and Puritanism that first introduced this worldview of culture-wide, compounding, covenantal growth to Western civilization. The vision of Deuteronomy 28:1-14 captivated the Puritans: the external cultural blessings that accompany covenantal faithfulness.

The development of the Calvinistic and Puritan doctrine of both spiritual and cultural progress reshaped the West. For the first time in human history, men were given a full-blown idea of progress, which was above all a doctrine of ethical progress. This vision was secularized by the philosophies of the Enlightenment, but that secularized version of progress is rapidly fading from the humanist West? Belief in the universality of entropy (meaning inevitable decay) is only one of the causes of this growing pessimism, but it is a powerful one.

In the twentieth century, “pessimillenialism”—premiliennialism and amillennialism—have been the dominant eschatologies. Those who hold such views have self-consciously rejected the idea of visible, institutional, social progress. They insist that the Bible does not teach such a hope with respect to the world prior to Christ’s personal, physical return in judgment.

“The Church Cannot Change the World!”

I realize that there are premillennialists who will take offense at this statement. They will cite their obligations under Luke 19:13: “Occupy till I come.” But the leaders of the traditionalChristianity Today (Feb. 6, 1987), Kenneth Kantzer asked:

Kantzer: For all of you who are not postmils, is it worth your efforts to improve the physical, social, and political situation on earth?

Walvoord: The answer is yes and no. We know that our efforts to make society Christianized is futile because the Bible doesn’t teach it. On the other hand, the Bible certainly doesn’t teach that we should be indifferent to injustice and famine and to all sorts of things that are wrong in our current civilization. Even though we know our efforts aren’t going to bring a utopia, we should do what we can to have honest government and moral laws. It’s very difficult from Scripture to advocate massive social improvement efforts, because certainly Paul didn’t start any, and neither did Peter. They assumed that civilization as a whole is hopeless and subject to God’s judgment (p. 6-l).

Who said anything about a utopia? Only the pessimists, who use the word in order to ridicule people who preach that Christians are not foreordained to be losers in history. Why is civilization more hopeless than the soul of any sinner? The gospel saves sinners, after all. Why should we expect no major social improvements in society? Jesus said, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). When He delegated power to His church-power manifested in miraculous healings and the casting out of demons-Christ transferred power to His followers. Why shouldn’t we expect widespread social and institutional healing in history?

The Power of Christ in History

Where is the earthly manifestation of this power?

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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