Sunday, November 10, 2013

Paul, Athens, Evidence, Presuppositions

... Paul doesn’t seem to make much headway at Athens. Some have used this fact to try to argue against education. The gospel, so the scenario goes, doesn’t play very well around the “educated.” Some pit education against a deep faith. “Don’t go to seminary or you’ll lose your faith.” “Don’t go to a secular university or a Christian liberal arts college—you’ll lose your faith.”

There is something deeply troubling about this kind of argument. Is true Christian faith really this vulnerable to thinking? Wouldn’t the most natural implication of that line of argument be that Christianity isn’t true, and that you have to be ignorant to have faith? Surely Christianity is in trouble if learning inevitably makes you lose faith!

There are probably educational institutions that are only interested in listening to new ideas, as Luke describes Athens (Acts 17:21). Perhaps they are more interested in unraveling your ideas than in building up an understanding of the world that works and is helpful. We can hope most Christian universities are places where the exploration of truth is done in the context of faith—faith seeking understanding. Hopefully, ideas are built up and not only subjected to scrutiny.

At the same time, the law of averages suggests that all of us inevitably grow up believing in a mixture of true and false things. At least some of what we start out centering our faith on must surely be in need of correction, just given the law of averages. Education, when it is done well, allows us to look at what we believe with a critical eye. It should allow us better to distinguish between what is solid and what is flimsy.

True faith is not afraid of questioning, because it has a confidence that what it believes will hold up against the evidence. And if we believe that God is a God of truth, then we must believe that God generally stands on the side of the most likely conclusion. There are potential pitfalls here. Sometimes the evidence is misleading. Sometimes we do not have enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion. It is completely appropriate to suspend judgment in some circumstances, especially on the issues of most importance or when we do not feel equipped to make a judgment.

There are those who would say that truth is not a matter of evidence at all, but that we must simply stand on certain assumptions—“presuppositions”—that we will not change no matter what amount of evidence may come against them. Again, this approach makes sense to a point, but what if our assumptions are wrong? Even our assumptions about the Bible are filled with traditions we have inherited from other people. I’ve never heard of any recent theologian to whom God appeared in person to tell them which presuppositions were unassailable. Rather, these theologians have inherited these presuppositions from other theologians, including presuppositions about the Bible.

There must surely be a point, then, when the evidence seems to mount to such an extent that we must re-examine even our presuppositions. Otherwise, we run the risk of mistaking human traditions for God’s truth. We should never examine our presuppositions carelessly or rebelliously, but cautiously and collectively alongside God’s people. We work out our understanding with faith, fear, and trembling (Phil. 2:12). We start with faith and seek additional understanding. God is a God of truth, so the truth cannot unravel our faith if our faith is legitimate...


Susan Moore said...

It seems you use the phrase "true faith" when you may mean "strong faith". A person can be immature in their true faith and not have the knowledge of that new faith to stand up to questioning or to otherwise articulate their faith. They have not yet gained strength and confidence in that faith because they have not yet successfully weathered the storms of life by His grace through their faith.
But mature faith has confidence because it has stood fast through the battles of life, and will stand up to questioning and opposition.
Funny, my priest just talked today about the need to discern the difference between one's traditions and one's doctrine. Were you listening?
Just curious -if God spoke to a person directly, what impetus would that person have to go to school and become a theologian?
P.S. Happy Birthday to me...God healed me 5 years ago today. I am five years new.

Ken Schenck said...

Happy spiritual birthday!

Anonymous said...

Far to general to be of any use or good. What presuppositions and traditions are you referring to? IF you say a 6 day creation, then you have blown your argument out of the water.
You say God is a God of truth, well God said he created in 6 24 hour days so if you are saying he didn't then God lied and is not the God of truth.
It would be far better if you didn't beat around the bush and address those presuppositions you do not like. Instead of making everyone guess what you are talking about.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Presuppositions are about what one assumes. If one assumes "biblical inerrancy" then, one will not be swayed with evidence to the contrary. Scripture trumps all other ways of coming to terms with the questions.

But, if one presupposes there are other ways of understanding "the Bible" then, one must prescribe to a particular undestanding of "theology" or tradition. There are many "theologies" out there.

If one presupposes human experience, then, one will look for commonalities among people groups. These could be similarities of physical needs or emotional needs.

But, if one presupposes reason, then, the disimilarities will become more important. Distinctions make for judgments about values. Not everyone is similar in their values.

Each of us does choose, even if unconciously, how we will approach life. Isn't it better to understand both commonalities and differences in human groups? Isn't this the way the Founders understood the need for accountability of leadership? And wasn't it to protect individual liberties as to choice?

Scripture and Tradition are particulars of religious groups. In our culture, we presume Christianity, as it was a conditioning element in our Founding, but was not the only element.