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Vol. XIV • 1992

Creation, The Fall and the Idea of Progress
Ellen Myers

Sociologist-historian Robert Nisbet's History of the Idea of Progress1 is a monumental and informative book. However, it is fundamentally flawed when evaluated from the biblical Christian perspective because it overlooks biblical creation and man's fall. Nisbet traces the idea of progress from the ancient Greeks to the middle of the twentieth century when the decline of Western civilization became an open secret and when confidence in science, its chief accomplishment, waned. Nisbet believes that only a renewal of religion or of a sense of the sacred can revive the idea of progress and with it the West. He hopes that such a revival is now under way, and believes that

the fusion of science and religion achieved by Teilhard de Chardin, one based upon the inexorable progress of human knowledge into the very distant future--and with this progress, the progress also of man's spirit and his estate on earth--will hold a very prominent place in it.2

This statement places Nisbet on the side of the worldwide New Age movement, which greatly venerates Teilhard de Chardin and promotes his cosmic evolutionist process philosophy. Nisbet shares the movement's optimism and emphasis upon "man's spirit." He believes that faith in progress is indispensable to actual progress, and also that belief in progress is intrinsic to Christianity. Here is Nisbet's definition of the idea of progress: Simply stated, the idea of progress holds that mankind has advanced in the past--from some aboriginal condition of primitiveness, barbarism, or even nullity--is now advancing, and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future. . . . The idea , . . must be thought a part of the very scheme of things in universe and society, Advance from the inferior to the superior must seem as real and certain as anything in the laws of nature.3

All this is akin to secular humanism and atheistic or pantheistic evolutionism, not to biblical Christianity.

Next, Nisbet asks what "advance" or "progress" means concretely, and replies that it means, first, "slow, gradual, and cumulative improvement in knowledge," and, second,

man's moral or spiritual condition on earth, his happiness, his freedom from torments of nature and society, and above all his serenity or tranquillity. The goal of progress or advancement is mankind's eventual achievement, on earth, of these spiritual and moral virtues, thus leading toward ever-greater perfection of human nature.4

Thus defined, neither the idea of progress itself nor its concrete outworking can be reconciled with the biblical record of man's origin and destiny, According to Genesis 1 and 2 man was originally created perfect, in the image and likeness of God Himself, and "very good." From this condition man fell by disobeying God, and to this condition he can be restored not by himself but only by regeneration in Christ, initiated by God (John 1:12, 13).

Nisbet defines "knowledge" as "objective knowledge such as that in science and technology,"5 and his fleeting reference to the Fall omits the biblical fact that not "objective knowledge such as that in science and technology" but rather man's disobedience to God his Creator and Lord were at issue in Eden. A separate treatise could be written on whether man can acquire "objective" knowledge; Nisbet seems unaware of the crucial, tremendous problem of epistemology (the validation of how man "knows"). The implication of Nisbet's assumptions is certainly that man can bring about his own "progress" independent of God, Similarly Nisbet makes cavalierly short shrift of the Pelagian controversy in his discussion of St. Augustine as a Christian champion of the idea of progress. Pelagius held that man can reform himself and do good by himself virtually independent of God's grace and regeneration; this very opinion is also the gist of the idea of progress as defined by Nisbet; and this opinion was condemned by the Christian Church as a major heresy due largely to the efforts of Augustine. Nisbet affirms that

corruptions of the idea of progress understood . , . I remain convinced that this idea has done more good over a twenty-five hundred-year period, led to more creativeness in more spheres, and given more strength to human hope and to individual desire for improvement than any other single idea in Western history.6 Nisbet maintains this defense of his idea of progress while admitting that "twentieth-century totalitarianism" and racism were founded on this idea of inexorable progress, The biblical teaching of the fall as sin is totally absent from his discussion, and therefore the necessity for man's regeneration in Christ is absent from his vision of mankind's eventual self-perfection "on earth." The Bible-believing Christian sees in modern totalitarianism and racism not temporary corruption of or slipping from a supposed norm of progress but rather a particularly vicious outburst of mankind's inherent fallenness from God's norm and God's law.

While in disagreement with Nisbet on this fundamental point, the Bible-believing Christian can agree that there has been progress in man's subduing or management of nature in, for example, agriculture, animal husbandry, medicine, transportation and housing, These endeavors are part and parcel of man's original creation mandate over the earth received from God the Creator (Genesis 1:26, 28), Since man is affected by sin, so is his exercise of his dominion mandate, resulting in much suffering by the rest of creation (Romans 8:22). Nevertheless plagues like polio and smallpox have been eradicated, waste and marginal lands have been opened for production, infant mortality has been reduced, and so on,

Another "upward" development may be found in the arts and humanities. "Progress" here is, for instance, the difference between simple folk tunes and the polyphonal compositions of Bach, or between a child's stick figure drawings to the paintings of Rembrandt (Bach and Rembrandt were Christians). However, modern art and music in their headlong surrender to sheer abstraction cannot be understood as an organic upward development from earlier artistic achievements. On the contrary, they testify that humanistic optimism and its strictly this-worldly idea of "progress" is now, as Nisbet himself sadly concedes, "at bay." As Jesus Christ told us, we must first seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things shall be added to us (Matthew 6:25-34). The most important progress in the world has been the preaching of the Gospel and its results among converted peoples and individuals. For example, when Kievan Rus (precursor of modern Russia) was brought to Christ in 988 A.D., the rapid changes from barbarism to beauty and order were astounding. Kiev soon abounded with churches, hospitals and schools as the fame of its advanced civilization spread abroad. Modern science and mathematics developed only in the Christian West, It is not "the idea of progress" which is at the root of actual progress, but rather regeneration in Christ and the active out-working of biblical faith in all areas of human action.

Since Nisbet omits the biblical doctrine of man's original sinless creation and his fall into sin, and hence misreads man's history as man's progress from aboriginal barbarism as compatible with Christianity (or at least with the thought of St. Augustine), it is not surprising that he emphasizes the influence of millenarian thought in Christian circles upon later humanistic philosophies of progress; Through the fertile mixture of pre- and post-Christian Jewish millenarian thought and Greek metaphysical and scientific ideas, Christianity had a well-developed millennialist doctrine by the second century, one that presented a picture of a future earthly paradise in the richest colors, or a heaven come down to the earth. No other element of Christian thought has had as profound and far-reaching effect upon the entire world, not merely the West . , . We should be hard put to account for the social Utopias of the Saint-Simonians, Comtists, and especially the Marxists . . . were there not a long and powerful tradition of Christian millennialist utopianism which could be, in some degree, secularized, with its apocalyptic intensity left undiminished.7

Nisbet does not say whether this second-century Christian millennialism taught that the millennium would come before or after the Second Coming of Christ, a question dividing Christian believers today, When discussing the seventeenth-century English Puritans, Nisbet points to their post-millennialism (Christ returns offer the earthly millennium) which, he asserts, combined progress in the arts and sciences as "at once a sign of the imminence of the golden age of the spirit on earth and a cause of this imminence,"8 Nisbet claims that the "religiously-intoxicated minds" in England and New England were enticed by their faith in the arts and sciences into a view of God "as a kind of process." Progress became a pattern, a "natural law," and God no longer was, He Himself "progressed" or "unfolded."9 Nisbet ascribes the rise of deism or even of "let(ting) God slip away entirely" in the next century to Puritan postmillennial thought. There is just one thing wrong with this analysis; Nisbet entirely omits the Puritans' proverbial stress upon man's submission to God's commandments as given in the Bible. Obedience to God's law at least as much as pursuit of scientific research was the Puritans' indispensable condition for establishing God's kingdom on earth. They also preached the absolute necessity of man's regeneration by God's sovereign grace which must precede his "good works" and alone enables him to perform them, even as Augustine had maintained against Pelagius.

According to Nisbet, mainline Puritans saw the millennium as a "stage, the final earthly stage, of human progress, Evolution, not revolution, is the essence. And this too is a prime ingredient of nineteenth-century theories of progress, along with the spirit of reform and utilitarian emphasis upon the material happiness of mankind."10 However, there also was an "other, explosive, no less Puritan type of mind that sees the millennium as . . . an end requiring for its complete success violence, war, and even terror."11 Nisbet associates this view with the Fifth Monarchy movement under Oliver Cromwell, which saw itself at the threshold of the millennium. Nisbet comments that "Precisely the same spirit, albeit somewhat more secularized, would animate the leaders of the French and then the Russian Revolutions."12 The French and Russian Revolutions, of course, in no way promoted but rather destroyed progress.

Over against historians who would make a sharp difference between adherents of progress by slow, cumulative change and believers in progress by revolution and raw power, Nisbet argues that

this is too restricted and artificial a conception of the idea of progress, What the idea means . , . is first and foremost that humanity is advancing toward some goal continuously, inexorably, and necessarily. Such an idea is ... indispensable ... to the chiliastic mind bent upon sudden transformation through whatever means, as it is to a Turgot, Mill, or Spencer. From the post-medieval disciples of Joachim, eager to hasten through sword and torch . . , the arrival of the mlllennium, through the zealots of the Puritan Revolution, through the Jacobins in the French Revolution, down to the Lenins, Stalins, Hitlers, and Maos of the twentieth century, the most awful of persecutions, tortures, massacres, and sieges of terror have had for their justification a sense of historical development, of necessary historical development, every bit as galvanizing as any Crusader's sense of God needing to be avenged against the infidel.13

Nisbet's blanket endorsement of the idea of progress, and indeed the very idea of progress itself, is questionable when appalling atrocities are condoned in its name. The Bible-believing Christian can never agree that the end justifies the means, or that we may do evil that good may come (Romans 3:8).

Nisbet believes that the discovery of the New World "strengthened the Christian providentialist interpretation of history as a progressive movement which would culminate in the evangelization of all mankind."14 Gradually, Nisbet states, the Christian stress upon the rule of God in history subtly changed to the rule of "Providence" and finally was omitted altogether. Nisbet traces this development brilliantly through summaries of the thought of great European thinkers including Bossuet, Leibniz and Vico. With Vico, Nisbet says, the post-Christian, modern idea of progress as belief in science came upon the horizon. In the nineteenth century this idea was captured most prominently in Darwin's Origin of Species, from which Nisbet quotes the following:

(W)e may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.15 Of course Darwin's optimistic progressivism was thoroughly anti-biblical in its denial of the Flood and of the final judgment. (Where, by the way, can the biblical final judgment find a place in Nisbet's "idea of progress"?) Speaking strictly scientifically. Darwin's belief in evolution by small, gradual increments has now been thoroughly discredited by many contrary findings, especially the absence of intermediate forms in the fossil record. This fact has given rise to the modern evolution model which allows "cataclysms" in the past and proceeds by big leaps ("punctuated equilibrium"). Again speaking scientifically, the entire idea of upward evolution from simple cell to complex organism is now, in Michael Denton's words, a "theory in crisis" in view of the astounding complexity of the individual cell revealed by modern microbiology.16

Nisbet cites Darwin's reference to the Creator at the end of the Origin "to show that even Darwin could combine at least the rudiments of what had once been an all-out faith in Christianity with progressivism" and that "innumerable professed Christians. . . could find so much in Darwin's historic work to agree with and to find compatible with views already arrived at."17 Nisbet, Darwin and "professed Christians" notwithstanding, evolutionary progres-sivism is a fantasy without foundation in created reality.

Nisbet discusses the idea of progress defined as ever increasing individual freedom as proposed by Turgot, Adam Smith, Malthus, Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer, as well as the American Founding Fathers.18 Many of these men seem to have shared a naive and unbiblical trust in the natural goodness of human nature. Adam Smith considered "the natural effort of every individual to better his own condition" the mainspring of human progress. Philip Freneau celebrated the American Revolution by predicting that "All men will rise from what they are;/Sublimer and superior, far,/Than Solon guessed, or Plato saw;/AII will be just, all will be good--/That harmony, 'not understood,'/Will reign the general law."19 They believed that if the individual is free to exercise his will and talents (provided no one else's liberty is violated), mankind's progress is assured. The Bible-believing Christian must insist that man's freedom be exercised under God and within God's law, or freedom turns to license and leads to misery, not progress. Furthermore, man after the Fall is not naturally good but a sinner by nature, and the effects of sin mark even the regenerate. Of all this Nisbet says nothing, emphasizing rather the opposition of the defenders of progress defined as "freedom" against the shackles of government. In our day of mushrooming government expansion we can sympathize with this position, yet we must stick to our biblical reservations as noted.

Nisbet deals with various nineteenth-century Utopian movements viewing progress as the exercise of power. Here is much information on Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, and Gobineau (the father of modern racism in Europe), among others, For them, freedom is inseparable from some kind of community or collective in which an elite exercises all power, yet where paradoxically the ideal for mankind is equality, Nothing less than a transformation of human nature by way of the reconstitution of society is their goal, This radical renewal of mankind is to be implemented in a rigorously scientific manner. Some allowed a role for something like religious worship in their programs, with mankind itself the object of veneration. Thus Auguste Comte wrote that his positivism was "Christianity denatured of its superstitions and converted into worship of the Grand Being, which is society or humanity."20 Much as Nisbet seeks to undergird his concept of the continuity of the idea of progress over time by recurrent references to the thought of St. Augustine as somehow congenial to modern progressives, by this time the incompatibility between Christianity and Nisbet's secular idea of progress is quite clear. Creation and the Fall cannot be spliced together with the supposedly inexorable rise of man from barbarism to perfection by his own efforts.

Nisbet considers the idea of progress as power, especially in its Marxist and racist forms, as a corruption of the idea of progress as such, In view of his earlier inclusion of progress by "sudden transformation through whatever means" as legitimate within the over all idea of progress, however, he cannot now consistently call progress viewed as power a corruption of the overall idea of progress. In Comte, Marx, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin and Mao we see the end result of the idea of progress of man without God. God was left out of the concept to begin with, and He the Creator and Sustainer of all things will not share His glory with idols made by apostate, sinful, unregenerate, proud man, Nisbet notwithstanding, the idea of progress, omitting Creator, Fall and regeneration in Christ, is not "noble"21 but fatally flawed and doomed to failure.


1 Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980).

2 Ibid., p. 316.

3 Ibid., pp, 4, 5.

4 Ibid., p. 5, emphasis in original.

5 Ibid., p. 8.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., p. 68.

8 Ibid., p. 127.

9 ibid., p. 129.

10 Ibid,, p. 130.

11 Ibid., p, 135.

12 Ibid., p. 137.

13Ibid., p. 139.

14 Statement by J. H. Elllott, quoted - Ibid., p. 147.

15 Quoted - Ibid., p. 175,

16 See Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986).

17 Ibid., p, 176.

18 Nisbet is wrong about the American Founding Fathers. For a definitive study of the decisive influence of Christianity and the biblical doctrine of creation on the origin of political liberty and the making of the United States, see Gary Amos, Defending the Declaration (of Independence) (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989).

19 Ibid., p. 202,

20 Quoted - Ibid., p. 257.

21 Ibid., p. 296.

"Creation, The Fall and the Idea of Progress"
CSSHS • Creation Social Science & Humanities Society • Quarterly Journal

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