Review of Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction

by John M. Frame

[Originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal 46:2 (Fall, 1984), 438-444. Used by permission.]

Herbert Schlossberg: Idols for Destruction. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983. 344.$8.95.


For some years I (and, I think, others) have been looking for a book that would in effect update Os Guinness’ magnificent 1973 volume, The Dust of Death. That volume was a wonderfully erudite and persuasive critique of the western culture of the late 1960s from a thoughtful, balanced Christian perspective. It seemed nearly perfect as a textbook in its field. The only major problem was that, focusing narrowly as it did upon a few years in our modern history, the book rapidly became dated. Still, it seemed impossible to hope that any other book would ever do this kind of job so well. But now we have Schlossberg. Amazingly,his Idols for Destruction is in most respects equal or superior to Guinness’ book. And, since it is written from a broader historical perspective, it will not lose so quickly its usefulness as an analysis of modern culture.

Schlossberg may be a new name to many of us, as it was to me. Unfortunately, the book contains no biographical data on the author, but I was able to find the following information in an interview with Schlossberg published in The Counsel ofChalcedon V, 10 (Dec., 1983), p. 11: He “is a financial planner in the upper midwest. He was educated at Bethel College and the University of Minnesota (Ph. D., 1965). Dr. Schlossberg has been a Professor of History at Waterloo University (Ontario,Canada), Academic Dean at Shepherd College (West Virginia), and an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

In summarizing the emphases of Idols for Destruction, it may be helpful to continue the comparison between this book and that of Guinness. R. J. Rushdoony and Gary North are to Schlossberg what Francis Schaeffer is to Guinness. Schaeffer presentedGuinness with a broad Christian world view which Guinness expounded and defended in meticulous detail. Similarly, Rushdoony and North are guiding spirits to Schlossberg. But Idols is a fully independent work, comprehensively researched, with creativeinterpretations and applications.

The Rushdoony connection (not to mention the CIA connection!) also suggests another difference between Schlossberg and Guinness. Both men use the rhetoric which describes Christians as a “third race,” neither liberal nor conservative, neither radical nor establishment. Both men criticize equally the conventional analyses of our times, whether “pessimistic” or “optimistic.” But as to the nature of the “third alternative” there is difference between the two writers. Guinness expressed a great deal of sympathy for the radicals of the new left, saying that their critique of the establishment was largely true, though presented from a faulty philosophical base and lacking a credible positive alternative. Guinness’ own positive proposals were not entirely clear, but the reader got the impression that these proposals would have transposed much of the leftist rhetoric, somehow, into a Christian key. In Schlossberg, that overtone of sympathy for leftist rhetoric is entirely lacking. His whole book, indeed, can be read as an extended (and powerful) critique of leftism and its roots (as Schlossberg sees them) in historicism and in hatred of the successful.

Why, then, the rhetoric of the “third race”? Is Schlossberg not merely siding with one of the existing secular alternatives? Well, his argument is that the secular conservative movement is inadequate because it is itself too socialistic. Only Christianity can, he says, overcome the envious spirit which lies at the root of secular politics and economics. Only Christianity can overcome the socialistic “idols” and produce true free enterprise. It is evident, then, that Schlossberg and Guinness have rather different ideas of where the “third race” will lead us. The reader’s preference of one over the other will depend on his prior political and (even more prior) theological commitments. My own view is that Schlossberg has thought through more carefully and profoundly theeconomic and political implications of Scripture; but Guinness is more successful in communicating human sympathy for the concerns of those with whom he disagrees.

The book begins with an introduction which summarizes the main themes. Schlossberg wishes to survey various “idols” of modern thought and life. The chief errors of our time stem from attempts to deify various aspects of the creation: history, nature, humanity, economics, nature, political power. Only affirmation and application of the creator-creature distinction can point the way out. The issues, then, are essentially religious and moral: we will not escape our dilemmas by some new form of political organization or a new economic system, even a more “conservative” one. The issues, therefore, may also be described as presuppositional. Schlossberg is very clear (rather more so than Guinness) that no human science or discipline is “neutral,” and through the book he frequently exposes false claims to openness and objectivity (see, e.g., 7f, 11, 25ff, 37f, 142ff, 146ff, 210f, 248, 273).

The first chapter deals with history, particularly with historicism, the view that history is “the whole show”(l3), all there is. The outcome of historicism is determinism, a sense of helplessness in the face of historical trends. Since we are helpless, it is often said, we “cannot turn back the clock,” meaning that we cannot mount any challenge against any fashionable trend. Facts and values, then, become confused: the present state of affairs becomes normative, beyond challenge. No, says Schlossberg. We are not forced to go with the tide. The critique of determinism continues throughout the book,as one of its main themes. Schlossberg attacks talk about the “unbreakable cycle of poverty” (62); he notes the inconsistency of those who relegate some to environment-determined victimhood, while regarding others (the “oppressors”) as free and responsible (83, 148ff, 153ff, 274). He argues that supposedly “unbreakable” cycles, historical patterns, have often been reversed, and quite rapidly (16, 25, 33, 260ff). All of this confirms Schlossberg’s initial premise that history is best understood, not by spatial or organic metaphors, but by the category of divine judgment (6).

The second chapter attacks humanism, the deification of humanity. Here, Schlossberg introduces another of the book’s pervasive themes, that of “ressentiment,” defined by Nietzsche as a hatred for the success of others, occasioned, usually, by envy(51).Modern humanism, dominated by this motive, demands a leveling of distinctions, equalization of wealth, restrictions on economic freedom, not out of concern for the poor, but out of hatred of the rich (102ff, 133). Thus, ironically, the deification of humanity produces strife (283ff), a distrust of civilization (170) and an indifference to abortion and euthanasia (77ff, 289).

The third chapter, “Idols of Mammon,” deals with economic matters. Schlossberg’s ideas on poverty are actually treated earlier in the second chapter. There he denies that the gap between rich and poor is getting larger (70ff); rather, he says, the politicians and media keep redefining poverty in order to achieve comprehensive socialistic redistribution. In the third chapter, he attacks inflationary policies of government and the use of redistribution to increase state power. He notes the degree to which redistribution policies often benefit the rich, both government bureaucrats and favored businesses.

Chapter Four, “Idols of Nature,” attacks the common dogmatic faith in science. The critique of determinism (148ff) continues from chapter one. Here there is some kinship between Schlossberg’s argument and those of Thomas Kuhn. Unlike Kuhn,however, Schlossberg presents an equally strong critique of irrationalism, particularly the notion (fostered by Kuhn and others) that the sociology of knowledge invalidates any claim to certainty about the nature of the world (153ff). He rightly points out that such skeptics always claim (implicitly, at least) an exemption for themselves; their ideas, at least, are not invalidated by sociological determinism. Thus determinism has two faces- rationalistic and irrationalistic. And as scientism and naturalism move from one pole to the other, supposed certainties dissolve in a new onslaught of eastern religions, spiritualisms, etc. (166ff). The only solution is a Christian epistemology, which presupposes the creator-creature distinction and a divinely implanted unity in creation between fact and meaning (175ff).

The next chapter deals with the deification of the state, “Idols of Power.” The modern messianic state claims ownership of all things, the right to formulate laws without any reference to transcendent moral standards(205ff). Therefore it seeks to reduceother authorities to impotence: local magistrates (212ff), the family (215ff). Our only recourse is a renewed faith in the sovereignty of God, which alone justifies resistance to totalitarianism (228ff).

Chapter six deals with the impotence of much religion, which has compromised with the earlier-mentioned idolatries. Chapter seven, “Consequences and Expectations” argues that only a return to authentic Christian faith can avert the decline. Chapter eight summons the church to a consistent witness.

Many of the above theses are familiar to readers of Rushdoony, North, Van Til et al. What distinguishes the present book are (1) a systematic account, showing how a great number of these issues are related to one another, (2) an enormous number of illustrations, quotes, much documentary evidence, (3) a clearer account than is usually found in the reconstructionist literature of the relation between spiritual renewal and social improvement: Schlossberg persuades us of the inadequacies of anything less than a fully biblical reformation.

I do have some problems with the book. The treatment of “multiple causation” in history (21ff) seems simplistic to me. Schlossberg seems to think that a Christian must regard God as the only cause of world events. While God is the only ultimate cause, I believe that we must do justice to secondary causes as well. No doubt the Babylonian captivity of Israel was God’s judgment on the sins of his people (22); but to say this is not to rule out all other causal factors. The glory of God is that he makes all these “multiple causes” work together for his purposes (Rom. 8:28).

I think that Schlossberg also overestimates, somewhat, the role of ressentiment. Like Rushdoony, Schlossberg sometimes fails to distinguish between those who are guilty of ressentiment and those who are merely misguided in their otherwise laudabledesires to help the poor. And I certainly don’t think that Scheler’s authority is sufficient to force us to define the word “altruism” in terms of ressentiment (53). Altruism is a good word, and we shouldn’t be required on such inadequate grounds to use it in a bad sense.

Schlossberg also leaves me with an unclear impression about state power. It almost seems that any desire for additional state power is sinful. What are the legitimate powers of the state? Much more needs to be said.

Then, too, I think he ought to give more attention to the workings of common grace in history. The fact is that the unbelief of a nation does not always bring rapid judgment; God often tarries, displaying his longsuffering. And, in the short run, at least, the righteous do suffer. One sometimes gets the impression from the book that unless there is mass repentance, the United States will soon be destroyed. But why has judgment already been delayed through eighty years of a very secular century? And why has theSoviet Union continued to gain power since 1917?

I  also think Schlossberg gives short shrift to the important matter of the church’s divisions. He refers to organizational unity only negatively, saying that some have used it as a substitute for organic unity (332). While his point is right, he should surelyhave said also that the opposition between organizational and organic unity is unbiblical and that both are required by Scripture.

I would also suggest some format changes for future editions of the book. Certainly the publisher should remedy the present lack of any biographical information on the author. Also, I think there should be a bibliography of works which Schlossberg finds especially helpful to people who wish to improve their understanding of the matters discussed. There is, to be sure, a good index and a multitude of footnotes; but I still think a bibliography is needed, for these reasons: (1) Many of the books quoted andfootnoted, even those quoted favorably, are books which represent positions far removed from Schlossberg’s Reformed Christianity. Niebuhr, Toynbee, Butterfield, Ellul and such are quoted often. The reader with only footnotes to guide him could find himselfled far from Schlossberg’s path. (2) While I appreciate (and share) Schlossberg’s desire to avoid party labels (9f), I do believe that when one is indebted to a particular school of thought he ought to acknowledge that fact. Those of us familiar with the Rushdoony-North approach can see evidence of its influence on every page of Idols, and in the aforementioned issue of The Counsel of Chalcedon, Schlossberg admits this influence openly. But in Idols, Schlossberg quotes Rushdoony and North only rarely and never really tells the reader the extent of their influence on him. Thus the reader is not helped to find those sources with closest kinship to Schlossberg (cf. point (1)), and Rushdoony and North are not given adequate credit for their rather substantial contribution to the argument of the book. I am not denying Schlossberg’s originality; quite the contrary. But I think that originality can be much better appreciated when seen in its intellectual environment.

For all of this, I do believe the book is a marvelous achievement, the textbook of choice for college and seminary courses in the Christian evaluation of modern culture, “must” reading for thinking Christians, the true successor to Guinness’ The Dust of Death. I have not begun to suggest in this review the breadth of Schlossberg’s research or the careful, nuanced development of his argument. Those must be seen to be appreciated. I eagerly await more contributions from this fine author.


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