Part of me would love to do all the research on the front end and then systematically publish the results here in blog form. Unfortunately, I would probably never start writing if that were the case. So let’s just start by framing the question and discussing possible directions. We’ll move from the vauge to the specific and see where that gets us.
It started coming to my attention about this time last year that something else goes into Biblical interpretation than just seeing what the Bible says about a topic and then organizing the results. Invariably certain contradictions arise (enter divine sovereignty/human freedom-responsibility debate) that seem unresolvable and one is posed with a problem. You can either take the Wesleyean route (that is what John Wesley did, not what Wesleyans today necessarily do, although they might) or you can thoroughly examine your presuppositions (i.e. the lens you wear when reading the Bible) you are using when you endeavor to interpret the Biblical text. The former approach either leads to the invention of new doctrine (i.e. prevenient grace) or a tension that is never fully resolved even though it results from holding two ideas that have contradictory metaphysical assumptions behind them (i.e. they can’t both be right, so synthesizing them is a bad idea). The latter approach hopefully leads to a more thoroughly consistent approach to theology in that it first examines the nature of reality and knowledge before moving into the task of systematic theology and the Biblical interpretation, knowing full well the implications of our underlying understanding of reality.
None of this is necessarily to pick on John Wesley of course. He was a great man of God used to reach many people, but in examining his theological methodology in our Church History class over the past few weeks, it seems he was clearly going about things in a way that seemed to lead to contradiction and the necessity of creating new doctrinal ideas that had never before existed. In order for something like that to be true, one would have to assume that everyone prior to you had it all wrong in one way or another (something people like N.T. Wright virtually argue for in some instances). For me at least, I have a hard time boldly claiming that Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and many of the early church fathers simply misunderstood some of the more basic doctrines of our faith. Instead I would rather opt to build on and refine their ideas.
That being said, we are not here to really talk about Wesley or pick on him, he just might come up every now and then as a foil to demonstrate the antithesis to what we are going to be doing here. Which I’m sure at this point you’re wondering just what that might be. Well I’m glad you asked.
What I’d like to do here is build a Christian philosohpy of life, which entails answering the typical philosophical questions that arise, but doing so in a decidely Christian fashion. This is not necessarily done apart from the Biblical revelation, it is just dealing with things more properly categorized under philosophy than under theology. The flow of thought generally should go: philosophy —> revelation —-> theology proper —-> the rest of the systematics. This is the course we will follow here and the reason for this lead to the other thing that has been slowly coming to my attention. That is, that there is a preponderance of evangelical Christians who love God and study the Bible, but have unknowingly absorbed non-Christian categories of thought into their theological reasoning. The reason I think for this is that philosophy is mainly taught by surveying the history of pagan thought on the nature of reality, knoweldge, and ethics and then sort of picking and choosing that which seems to comport with our theology and then integrating it into our thinking (kind of like the misguided effort to do the same thing with psychology and Biblical counseling). You can see this clearly in the effect of Plato (and/or Aristotle) on our understanding of reality (theory of forms and the like), Rene Descartes’ effect on our understanding of knowledge (leading to Enlightenment categories being absorbed into our thinking) and even Immanuel Kant’s effect on our understanding of ethics (i.e. duty based service to God).
The problem in all of this is that we cannot simply baptize pagan thought in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and then consider it to be Christian. In general the greats of philosophy were not Christians and did not share our understanding of reality, knowledge, and ethics. Descartes comes close to being an exception in that he at least had good motives for doing what he did (proving the existence of God) but the influence of previous pagan thought got to him and he started his whole system on the wrong foot and succeeded in ripping a hole in the fabric of knowledge that no one has successfully mended yet (at least by starting the way he started) If nothing, Descartes serves as another example of someone meaning well, but by not starting in the right place andthey subsequently took us somewhere we really didn’t want to go (Enlightenment —> Post-modernity —-> Post post-modernity, whatever that will entail).
So what all will this involve? Unlike Descartes, we will start with metaphysics (which is what everyone before him did) but epistemology will follow close behind. What is going to come up fast and probably furiously is the question of authority, as well as cirularity in reasoning. To a certain extent, we have to base our thinking on some kind of authority and ultimate authority has to be self-authenticating. This generally leads us to being charged with circularity in reasoning; however, this circularity is generally unavoidable and can be found in most philosophical systems, it just isn’t as explicit as you might expect. Descartes sought to avoid this by locating the ultimate authority first in himself and then only later said that is was validated by God (as in later in the same work, not later on in his thought). This was a rather fatal move for epistemology, for in granting man a certain measure of autonomy, Descartes undermined our ability to really know anything as well as for there ultimately to be no truth or meaning at all (this will be unpacked later). Subsequent philosophers picked up on this (i.e. Locke and Hume) and saw that as Descartes had rendered God in his philosophy, He was rather easily cut out from the system, leaving man as the ultimate authority. Capitalizing on this further, we have individuals like Nietzsche realizing that without God there is no meaning in anything, including morals and our ultimate existence, and it wasn’t long before everything became relative and nothing really mattered anymore, at least from a philosophical perspective.
As Christians we need to be able to effectively challenge this type of thinking and if we have absorbed to many pagan categories of thought into our own theology, we are generally incapable of really apologetically challenging militant atheists, extreme skeptics, and even the average unbeliever who is philosophically astute. Evidentialism as an apologetics tool simply does not work in the philosophical setting we find ourselves in because the nature of the debate between the Christian and the non-Christians is at the level of presuppositions about reality and knowledge. Simply presenting well documented facts of Christianity doesn’t challenge an unbeliever at all for he simply has a different “philosophy of fact” and can accept the truth of certain aspects of our faith, yet easily continue in his unbelief. It is as if, to borrow a metaphor from Van Til (who will factor in significantly in future discussions), we are handing the unbeliever fact after fact about the truth of Christianity, and he is simply saying “Oh that’s nice,” and throwing them over his shoulder into an abyss of meaninglessness never to affect his underlying philosophical commitments.
Ultimately this leads us to the idea that we have to establish that a Christian construal of philosophy is the only workable framework with which to understand reality. It is the only system of thought that provides the “pre-conditions for intelligebility.” That is to say, only if what we are going to unpack in this blog series is true can anything else be true or have any bearing on reality. An implication of this is that we aren’t going to endeavor to provide any of the typical theistic proofs for God. Bavinck (Herman) noted that these actual only prove a finite God (we’ll come back to this later) and that is not what we are after. We can’t simply prove a finite God’s existence and then tack the attributes of the Triune God to the Bible onto him after the fact.
Instead, we are going to start with God. Not just any God, we are going to start with the Triune God was revealed in Scripture which we will accept as self-authenticating through His Word. Our operating assumption (or presupposition) is that this God exists and that the Bible is His authoritative Word. What we will see is that this in fact is not circular in the negative sense, but that is could be no other way and that unless this opening assumption is true, nothing else can be. Stated more succinctly (to be unpacked later), the proof of God’s existence is that unless God exists, you could never prove anything. If you’d like to see it in logical form, here it is:
- In order to prove anything, one must reason with sound logic
- In order to reason with sound logic the law of non-contradiction must be true
- The law of non-contradiction requires some level of absolute truth to uphold it
- Absolute truth requires an absolute personality to uphold it
- The Triune God of the Bible is absolute personality
- Therefore this God necessarily exists for any logical reasoning to be possible
Now this is just off the top of my head, so it may need to be refined, but as I said at the beginning this is thought in process, not finished ruminations being published. I am open to criticism. As best I can I am trying to suspend my overall theological system (Calvinism) and simply examine the philosophical presuppositions that are prerequisites to other theological reasoning (specifically in regards to soteriology). For the above syllogism, we will need to further support most of those points, but the controversial ones are probably the middle three (3,4,5) and those are the ones will we deal with, probably in the next post.
This blog hopefully raised many questions and stimulated some level of thinking. Many of the points may have new to some and are probably not free of controvery. I love to field questions that can be aswered in future posts which will typically have a more central focus and will stick an outline, even if it is rather rough. Here is roughly what I intended to deal with next:
- The nature of accepting things on authority
- How to deal with the circularity in assuming God and the Bible and then using both to support the assumption (it sounds illogical already doesn’t it?)
- Unpacking the 3 points from the syllogism
- Further elaborating on the necessity of the Truine God as the starting point in reality
- Discussion of the Creator/creature distinction as given in Genesis 1:1