Monday, December 09, 2013

Three Ways of Thinking...

This is just one dimension...

First, there are those for whom the world is really an entry point to talk about ideas. There is this thing called worldview and presupposition, and that is when you're really talking about what's important and real. The things around us are really just pointers toward that world of truth.

The Bible is all about this world of absolute truth. Its purpose is to tell us about God's worldview and the right presuppositions to have about the world. The Bible is a world of ideas, a window into God's mind. Individual words hold all kinds of secrets, as do the biblical texts if you have spiritual understanding.

If you've studied church history or philosophy, this should sound familiar. For Plato, the world of ideas is the true world, and the things around us are only shadows of the real world. If you look at the world around you, the world of senses, you are bound to be mislead. Only if you look on the heavenly ideals, will you know for sure how to interpret the world around you.

Platonism was an antecedent of Gnosticism, where the initiated gain insight into secret truths. Today, the Calvinist tradition tends toward the presuppositional. It talks a lot about worldview and "warranted philosophical beliefs" that do not need to be substantiated by evidence. I believe in order to understand. Post-liberalism, I think, has some tendencies in this direction

The second approach is more evidentiary in nature. It infers absolute truths from looking at the world around us. It looks for "evidence that demands a verdict." It expects (or makes) the evidence of science, archaeology, etc. to add up to the absolute truth that is also in the Bible. That truth, however, is not detached from evidence. It is supported and pointed to by the evidence. The real world thus embodies absolute truth, rather than us needing Platonic presuppositions to come up with the right answers.

Evangelicalism has often been more of this sort, more concrete, more inductive Bible study oriented. To be sure, there has often been some "steering" of the evidence in the desired direction. But what everyone says they are doing is letting the text say what it says inductively. This is a more Aristotelian approach to putting the details together. It believes that absolute truths are embodied in all the particulars. You get to the universals by seeing them in every particular.

So God embodies certain truths in his person. This approach tends to be more concrete, with less dreamy abstractions. You look for the universal principles that are embodied in each particular text of Scripture.

Modified nominalism
I hate to call this approach nominalism, because then attacks of medieval nominalism may distract from the concept. I do not wish to deny the existence of universal truth. I do wish to say that our finitude makes it quite presumptuous for us to think we can accurately think in those terms. The worldviews and absolute truths you hear so many Christians talking about are bound to be a source of much embarrassment and joke telling in the kingdom. "And you actually thought you had it figured out," and the angels slap you on the back and start laughing uproariously.

There are universal truths that are a matter of definition. "A person who is single is unmarried" is true by definition. However, when you are talking inductively, about the world, from the standpoint of our finite, human perspective, universal truths are aggregates of particular truths. That is to say, unless you are talking about something that is true by definition, universal truths are things that are true in all particular situations. In our current, fallen, finite situation, we are more or less forced to start with each particular and to connect them to each other in more limited ways.

To put it another way, you build up to universal truth by counting particulars and eventually coming to the conclusion that those particulars all point the same way. This is, by the way, what those are saying who say that context isn't everything. They are saying that all particular contexts all point in the same direction. But the underlying principle still stands.

In many cases, particulars probably will not build up to universals. Rather, one particular will be similar to another in some ways but not others. We will look for the ways in which different things resemble each other, looking for points of continuity and discontinuity but without any certainty that there will be some common core overlap. Some Schencks have big noses. Some have big ears, but there are no universal Schencky characteristics, only a collection of general family resemblances.

This approach gives full embodiment to each particular revelation, and requires us to map all those particular revelations to each other if we want then to speak of universal truths in Scripture. It is more complicated to be sure, but it is as far superior to the other approaches as the heaven is higher than the earth. This is the approach that gives the fullest sense to incarnation, for each individual truth is given its full significance.

I frankly can't see any possible way to argue for the other approaches. I can account for the other two, but the other two will inevitably end up trying to force some disparate data into a foreign mould. That is to say, there will be no "naughty data" in this modified nominalist approach, but there will always be disparate data with the others. That is to say, the aggregate of all particular discussions of ideology will suggest that this modified nominalist approach is a universal truth.

I get very frustrated with the prevalence of the other two approaches, for they seem sophomorish and kindergartenish. To me, they make Christians look stupid and inevitably undersell the profundity of God.


Jim Schenck said...

I remember back in the 80s and hearing Bud Bence try to help us thick-headed young theologs understand these three ways of thinking. I still have my notes and drawings (yes, drawings)! I remember feeling uncomfortable that I skewed nominalist. It can still be uncomfortable in a world where aristotelians "mature" into platonists, who just shake their collective heads at nominalists who obviously just don't have enough faith.
One of the issues of communicating and communing in the Church is that the three ways cannot really communicate well across the differences. The same word can have 3 (or 7 for the nominalist) different meanings. That makes for some difficulty in understanding.

Ken Schenck said...

I've heard of Bence's famous lecture on this. I've put the word "modified" in front of nominalism because I don't think I'm saying anything quite like Occam or Dunns Scotus. Lutheran theology is often accused of coming out of nominalism. For me, it fits well with Wesleyan pragmatism and was the spirit of the Religion Division at IWU in the 00s, I think...

Susan Moore said...

I don't understand these things. Which one was Jesus?

John Mark said...
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John Mark said...
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MarkK said...

Good stuff, Ken. I'm wondering if your Nominalist category could be related to a Kierkegardian-type view. Also, in thinking about these things in the past, as a teacher I have had occasion to apply the different philosophical views to different learning preferences. This has proved useful for many years. In so doing, I added a fourth category of thinker, more innovative, based on Einstein.
Any thoughts?

T said...

Ken, thanks for this helpful summary. What literature can you recommend that gives a good introduction to something like a modified nominalist position from a theistic or Christian perspective?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Isn't Lutheran theology more revolutionary in their commitments? Luther's questioning of Church authorities was only the first step in developing the continum....But, because of its open-endedness, those who tend more toward wanting closure and certainty turned toward fundamentalism.

Faith is "symbol" at the highest understanding in faith development. Language is a symbol, which belies cultural values and emphasis.

Plato's view of corresponding "truth claims" is certain and absolute (though we see through a glass darkly). It is presuppositional, yes, because of the basis of authority in Scripture.

Arisotle's view being the context of Reason. Evidence supports assumptions. All men have reason, but how they choose their bias will determine how they view "faith".

But, a nominalist position is an embracing of "meaning" because of understanding that experiences (cultural and personal) are different among people groups and individuals.