A Brief Introduction to Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

Eugen Rosenstock was born in Berlin in 1888, son of a Jewish banker. He converted to Christianity early in life, earned a doctorate in law, and served in the German army in World War I. After the war, he became convinced that Western Civilization was undergoing a great change and decided to devote his life to providing a Christian explanation of this movement of history. When he married Margrit Huessy, he added her last name to his own.

The twin poles of his thought concern language and history. Against the method of philosophy, he contended that it is language, not logic, that opens reality; and against the timeless abstractions of philosophy he contended that God’s work in history provides the true revelation of human existence. In back of these two correlative ideas is the Christian doctrine of a God who speaks and who has created the universe and superintends the progression of historical development stemming from that act of creation.

Since the Second Person of God reveals God, and since He is the Word of God, and since humanity is made in His image, it follows that an investigation into the character of language is an investigation into the character of man and of reality. Thus, R-H proposed a linguistic approach to human life and developed a Christian approach to grammar that differs markedly from the Greek approach that we have all been taught. Language, according to R-H, moves from God to man as command, to which we respond in joyful lyrical obedience. God speaks to us again in judgment, evaluating our works, and we respond with reflection, learning from our history. Thus, language moves from command to song to judgment to reflection.

This is history; it is liturgical history because it is a dialogue between God’s Son and His daughter (humanity). (This is how I put it, not R-H). The history of cultures also runs from a time of command and initiation, when the culture is established, to a time of outworking, as the people joyously implement the paradigm of their culture. Then comes a period of decay leading to a time of judgment and a further time of reflection. Thus (this is I, again), we move from Moses to David to the prophets (Jesus) to Paul.

Apart from God’s Spirit, sinful humanity drops out of history into the “world.” God calls us back into history as actors in His drama. History, though, is a complex tapestry that involves all human beings and all human actions. Thus, R-H investigates history in depth, showing the changes and transformations, the revolutions, that destroy old cultural models and introduce new ones.

All of this I see as very valuable, and for that reason I recommend that anyone seriously interested in laboring in the intellectual arena become familiar with Rosenstock-Huessy’s insights. Now for a few observations.

1. Rosenstock-Huessy is always a surprise. One never knows what he will write or say on a topic, but it will always be something “different.” He tries to come at old things in new ways, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

2. Rosenstock-Huessy is rather a maverick as a Christian. He sco_s at the notion that the universe is millions of years old. He claims to hold fiercely to Nicene orthodoxy, and views the Bible as God’s inspired Word. He has contempt for liberal Christianity and for literary criticism of the Bible. He affrms that the four gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in that order. Yet he also thinks that the books of Moses were put together in the days of David. Also, he often speaks and writes as if the Church were going to wither away in the next millennium, but he remained an active church-goer all his life. (In fact, the coming age of international techo-tribalism will be a golden time for the local church, for the local church is the purest form of the tribe.)

3. Rosenstock-Huessy’s followers and advocates are, it seems, mainly composed of people who want some kind of religionless Christianity, or some kind of one-world order that is not grounded in the church. The antithesis between Christ and non-Christ, between “history” and the “world,” which is pretty clear in R-H’s own work (though not as clear as we would like), is not maintained by many of his disciples. In my opinion, the “liberals” who have taken up R-H’s insights are not being faithful to the master. Be warned, though, that if you begin to read the literature surrounding his work, you will sometimes encounter left-wing nonsense.

4. Rosenstock-Huessy’s books and tapes are available from Argo Books. Write for a catalogue. They also publish a newsletter.

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons