Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Birth of Presuppositionalism

I have long conceptionalized the transition from pre-modern to modernist interpretation of the Bible. Most Christians, indeed most pastors, even church leaders, even Christian professors often use language like, "the Bible says" when in fact they are offering a Christian position that may only tangentially relate to the original meanings of individual passages.

Charles Taylor has this week added a good deal of depth to the phenomenon to which I am referring. I am thinking here in particular of the transition that Descartes represents between seeing an order and truth structure inherent in the universe and a paradigm that starts with particular truths and builds up toward universal truths. This provides depth of hermeneutical understanding in two directions:

1. It clarifies my "atomistic" approach to biblical interpretation. Descartes' quest for certainty ended up breaking down truth into individual truth claims. In terms of meaning, Wittgenstein embodies the end of this trajectory. I can't see any other approach to meaning that makes any sense at all but his. Meaning is a function of how words are used in particular contexts. Common meaning is not a matter of universal meanings that play themselves out in different situations. Common meaning is a matter of the overlap between word use in one context and word use in another.

Any sense of "the Bible says" is thus by the very nature of language at least in some discontinuity with the individual meanings of specific passages. It can also be in continuity with those meanings. The point is that meanings are always context specific, and common meaning implies commonality between contexts, not different instances of universal meanings.

2. The "pre-modern," although the Enlightenment commenced over three hundred years ago, still sees the meaning of the Bible as something that is out there, like the order of the world that those before Descartes saw. Descartes' attempt to find certainty by questioning all he could question exposed that there was little basis for vast amounts of what people saw as the intrinsic order of the world.

This is similar to the way the Bible is commonly used by layperson and from the pulpit alike. There a broad assumption that we know what "the Bible" says, just as before Descartes people thought they knew what the order of the universe was. Indeed, the person who knows what "the Bible" says may be able to weave an impressive pastiche of quotations together that seems superficially to go together because of common words or words that in our context make sense together (cf. Wesley).

Nevertheless, deeper exploration frequently reveals a particularity to the individual passages in question that reveals that the order found is not so much a function of the text as of the interpreter. This is particularly the case when doctrines only hammered out centuries later are seen intimately in the text (e.g., the Trinity). We are unaware of the massive amounts of "glue" that comes from us rather than from the biblical texts themselves.

3. The movement from pre-modern unreflectivity to modernist (semi) reflectivity can be quite troubling. You feel like the rug is pulled out from under you. Contextual interpretation is often compelling and the interpreter feels stupid, exposed. You had never noticed that Genesis never actually says that Moses was its author or that Exodus through Deuteronomy all talk about Moses (including his death), not as if Moses was the author himself.

One of the best responses to the uncertainty Descartes and Enlightenment heirs like Locke and Hume bequeathed on us is what I am calling presuppositionalism. In its own way, Scottish (common sense) realism is a kind of presuppositionalism. It presupposes that what we see is what we get, regardless of the fact that we can question what we see. This works well when a philosopher is asking arcane questions like whether the table in front of us is real or not. It also has fed a certain rampant American anti-intellectualism that laughs at the intelligent as stupid ("nerd," "geek") and considers a person suspect if they are actually an expert on something (global warming, etc.).

Reformed presuppositionalism is, in my view, the most ingenious response to this ideological situation. On the one hand, I think recourse to presuppositions is the appropriate response. The fundamental problem with Cartesian doubt is that reason and experience simply cannot put the Humpty Dumpty of faith back together again. Revelation is an essential ingredient in the equation, and this is not something discovered but something, well, revealed.

The question is how large our presuppositions should be and how subject to revision they are. In my opinion, the extent to which some Reformed presuppositionalists go makes their conclusions incredulous to all but those few who are already convinced of their viewpoint. Most crucially, they do not allow their presuppositions to be revised in the light of particular data. If the atomism of the Enlightenment makes it difficult to find overarching truth, the presuppositionalism of this sort hangs in air without any apparent basis whatsoever. Their system is thus unconvincing to any but the "elect," a cipher for those who stumble upon their tribe by birth or happenstance.

And so the balance is best found in language that goes back to Augustine, "faith seeking understanding." There is no reason not to begin our epistemological pilgrimages wherever we happen to start. If we start with a Wesleyan faith, a Baptist faith, etc, we have no compelling reason not to start with the faith that we have. Few will end with faith if they start from scratch--that is not the path to take.

But the version of faith with which we start should be revisable in the light of particulars. Otherwise, there is no clear connection between our faith and the truth. It would seem to be a reasonable presupposition that faith will correspond in at least a general way with reason and experience. This is not to say that the evidence demands a verdict, an opposite extreme, only that it will surely be in the ballpark.

Once one truly understands how to interpret individual passages of the Bible in context, one is no longer able to go back to exactly the same way Christians read the Bible before the Enlightenment. Contextual meaning is too compelling. To read passages in the old way is still possible, but only by reading those texts in a "more than literal" way or by placing the words in a slightly different, Christian reading context. I have argued for this hermeneutic elsewhere.

What one can no longer do is think that the overarching Christian meaning inheres in the text itself, as those before Descartes saw a particular order inhering in the world. What we can have is an overarching Christian faith (that we have inherited from the saints of the ages) that involves a reading of Scripture as a whole (with new meanings from this "new" Christian context) that is in various degrees of continuity and discontinuity with the countless original meanings of specific passages.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Faith is leaping in the dark, by asserting that a "special" revelation is true, before one even "gets into" hermenuetics.
This is the traditional "inductive" method.

The inductive method theologizes the great problems and complexities in the world, by answering all one's questions with simplistic answers that disconnects the believer from reality, and the real world. (after all we will be rescued one day), as well as objectifying the "other" with platitudes that make life easier to bear, but not really better. And many times, it can be morally degrading and damaging to believe such "supernaturalism", because it does disservice to humans when they encounter the real world after being indoctrinated and anethesized, not to mention ignoring scientific differences that have transpired over the modern era.

Anything then, can be "truth", and even be "sanctioned" by the Church authorities, if they come to that opinion or conclusion. Otherwise, it is a projection of the interpreter, who may or may not see things the way they "need" to be seen. It is anesthesia. Then "all is even better" because authority has spoken and Authority has sanctioned, self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can't get a handle on why I ever thought that anyone was "chosen by God". I surmise, it was an infantile need that was met with theological answers about Fatherhood.

JohnLDrury said...


This is very good. A broader account of the transition and a healthy discussion of the response. Well done!


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Re-read after reading John's comment....and what I think I hear you say is that we must begin with faith in a Creator. That is not what evolution particularly calls, if God exists, then he is "over" natural processes which though ordered, are understood by science. Therefore, the real issue is to discover, as in scientific investigation, because God is presupposed over such general revelation. It becomes discovering in God's universe, presupposing God. It sometimes becomes contorted to allign scripture with the things found in the real world.

I prefer to say that what is found to be true is true, and it is useful for this world. God can be glorified in anything that way...Whether the science is done by believer or non-believer.

Christopher C. Schrock said...

What a great post. I really appreciate your appropriation of Augustine’s “faith seeking understanding” - it certainly provides the balance we need and bypasses the erroneous idea of a “timeless text” and “timeless interpretation”. Both the text and interpretation are communal property. (I cringe at saying it that way because it sounds so simple/mere/crude sounding, but if truth is simple/mere/crude then so be it.) There are no idea-neutral vacuums for us to crawl into and from within which we can apprehend the timeless text/timeless interpretation. Also, I agree, there are certain individuals within the Reformed fold who think the 17th century is as good as it gets. The Westminster Divines were good guys, but they did not think they were the final word by any stretch of the imagination and anyone who is currently appealing to them de facto as the final word on all matters is wrong. (In fact, it is a fun time to be Reformed because a lot of work is being done to illuminate the personalities and historical context from within which the Confession was drafted - there is a project underway to publish the meeting notes and minutes of the Westminster assembly, etc. -- )

Also, quick question—could you clarify what you mean by “pre-modern” … I’m getting tripped up at that point. (Are you talking about Medieval scholars or are you using pre-modern to imply a different group?)

Anonymous said...


I too thought this was a very good write up. I enjoy reading your material.

Bryan Purvis