How Firm a Foundation? An Argument for the Instability of Foundationalism As A Christian Epistemology

In “How Firm a Foundation: Can Evangelicals Be Nonfoundationalists?”, his contribution to a 1996 book on the theological phenomenon of “postliberalism”, Rodney Clapp provocatively writes: “I want to suggest that Evangelicals are better off disavowing foundationalism, and argue that one of the better reasons for abandoning it is that the abandonment will enable us to be more devout Christians and less devout liberals.” [The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 82-83]
What could this possibly mean, paralleling being an Evangelical with being a “devout liberal”? After all, aren’t Evangelicals constantly talking about how “conservative” they are as opposed to their many opponents who are mostly shameless proponents of various Evil Isms like “liberalism” and “postmodernism”?

Before trying to solve this apparent puzzle it is important that we understand what is meant by “foundationalism.” Simply put, foundationalism is the epistemological position that an individual’s belief structure must be premised upon a foundation of non-inferential beliefs–that is, beliefs which in some fashion or another stand “on their own” and constitute the very definition of “rationality”. All inferred beliefs must rest finally on non-inferred beliefs if they are to be considered “reasonable”. Foundationalism in its “classical” sense is usually traced back to the work of Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Like many men of his generation (a hundred years after the beginning of the epic battle between Roman Catholics and Protesting Catholics), Descartes found himself in a state of high anxiety about how to know truth and deal with the rapidly proliferating and equally contradicting, authority claimants. In the realm of the newly-emerging science men such as Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz viciously fought in tracts and books and debates that tore the intellectual world to pieces. A similar condition obtained in the realm of theology, as militant factions went to actual physical war with each other over competing religious truth claims, ravaging whole nations (and setting up a stereotype that is still with us today about what supposedly necessarily happens when a religion is in cultural power).

In this context, a method of definitively resolving seemingly intractable conflicts seemed to be sorely needed. This method, what we now call “classical foundationalism”, was and is an attempt to ground absolute certainty upon the “assured results” of a method of absolute doubt, which supposedly “frees” the mind from all prejudicing factors and allows it to hold “clear” truth in an absolutely unimpeded manner. The indubitable foundation at which Descartes himself arrived was a modified form of a sentence of St. Augustine regarding the relationship of doubt to existence. Augustine had written “Si fallor sum”, “For if I doubt, then I exist.” Descartes, who by his process of (allegedly) doubting everything had (allegedly) purged his mind of all external influences (including Augustine!) wrote “Cogito, ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am.” Upon this absolutely indubitable foundational belief, this “clear and distinct idea”, Descartes then reconstructed his entire knowledge base via the inductive method of piling up on top of it additional “clear and distinct ideas” of (presumably) equal indubitability as the first. This method, born out of the chaos of the terrible Wars of Religion, was thought to be able to end the Wars by providing a universal method of resolving doubts–that is, a method that every “reasonable” person would immediately recognize as being universal and actually able to do what it claimed to do. Unprejudiced men would not fight with each other (either in the world of the mind or in the world of the body), so it seemed to follow that eliminating prejudice would eliminate the fighting.

What actually happened was far different. Descartes’s new “universal” method of resolving controversies immediately began to produce new and equally bitter controversies as the various factions already fighting with each other entrenched themselves against the “skepticism” they felt Descartes was advancing, or else adapted his method to their own peculiar truth claims, attacking other truth claims by rigorously reducing them to positions of radical doubt. One early critic of Descartes, watching the new battles inspired by the method of radical doubt quipped that all Descartes had done was to create a situation where instead of appealing to infallible authorities outside of himself “each individual sets up an infallible chair in his own brain.” For as it turned out, what was “clear and distinct” to one practitioner of the Cartesian method was not necessarily either clear or distinct to another–and it was a simple matter to eliminate one’s opponent from the sphere of “rationality” by simply declaring his contrary views to be the result of “prejudice”, which, unlike onself, he had failed to eliminate from his thinking. Lest there be any doubt about what is meant by “prejudice”, it means everything which in any way partakes of finitude and change: particularly traditions, social contexts, linguistic factors, and, for more radical foundationalists, anything else that can be summarily shoved into an ad hoc category called “unreasonable” (which, of course, is anything that is not “clear and distinct” to the foundationalist himself).

Thus, the methodology of radical doubt was able to secure freedom from all doubt only by radically epistemologically isolating each individual from every other individual. Locking each individual up inside his own head and leaving him the ability to truly know something with certainty only by the exercise of his own purportedly unprejudiced faculties, the method gave birth to what has been subsequently called “the egocentric predicament”. The center of an individual’s knowledge is his own self, and if any doubt is ever allowed to survive in one’s self it will inevitably call into question all the subsequent “indubitable” beliefs so carefully built on top of the “indubitable” foundation. This of course provides a powerful psychological incentive to paint disputed matters in the “clearest” possible manner–that is, the most simplistic manner possible, so that there is no room whatsoever for any doubt. Cartesian foundationalism thus radically separated the knowing subject from the object to be known, and in effect reduced the object to be known to merely whatever happens to be “clear and distinct” to the private, isolated knowing subject. Somewhat paradoxically, doubt is for the foundationalist simultaneously the undoubtable foundation of his system and its undoubtable mortal enemy.

One form of foundationalism that has been particularly influential upon American Protestantism is known as “Scottish Common Sense Realism”. An excellent citation showing what this school of foundationalism believes is this description of the Old Princeton theologians Hodge, Alexander, and Warfield: “any sane and unbiased person of common sense could and must perceive the same things”, for “basic truths are much the same for all persons in all times and places.” (Clapp pg. 83, citing George Marsden’s book Fundamentalism and American Culture, pg. 111; but, italics are mine). By contrast to theological liberals such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (who made religion consist in a purportedly universal feeling of “absolute dependence”), American Protestants adopted foundationalism in the form of radicalizing the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura. That is, by separating the original authority of Scripture from the ministerial authority of the Church so sharply that regardless of what formal definitions were accurately maintained, in actual practice the authority of the Bible became thought of as an absolutely independent, “clear and distinct”, “self-evident”, and “self-interpreting” source of very-much modern-looking “scientific truths”. Again, Hodge stands as a good example of this viewpoint, and his legacy certainly casts a large shadow over modern American Protestantism.

So much for a brief sketch of “foundationalism”. Now to return to Clapp’s argument for why Evangelicals should disavow the foundationalist project so that they can avoid being “devout liberals”.

Clapp begins the demonstration of his point by pointing out the irony that foundationalism is wedded to a “mathematical” conception of truth but that its understanding of mathematics isn’t even accurate on the basic terms of mathematics. For instance, although it may seem intuitively “clear and distinct” to the naive foundationalist that always, everywhere, and at all times 7 + 9 = 16, this is in fact true only in what might be called a “base 10″ system. Switching to a “base 16″ system would yield quite a different result: 7 + 9 = 10. To see how this works go here, start at the number 7 and count nine places. This will bring you to 10. The point here is that not even mathematical formulas are always susceptible to “clear” meanings that are indubitably true; much indeed does depend on the frame of reference one uses to determine what is “clear”. This is not “relativism”, as some facilely charge, but merely a recognition of complexity and diversity in the contexts of the “facts” of the created world.

Clapp then points out that “how foundationalists really argue” often seems to be different from the way their theory stipulates. For instance, take the debate between Evangelical feminists (egalitarians) and Evangelical antifeminists (complementarians):

…[Each group is] convinced that they are objectively, foundationally right and that the others are objectively, foundationally wrong. Since they are all (at least in their own eyes) evangelical, they spend a great deal of time arguing about what the Bible “really says” about the role of women. Thus the argument comes down to who is reading the Bible correctly. How is this decided? Again, in actual practice it is not going to be substantially decided in any foundationalist, objectivist sense. That is, one side is not going to fall down and say, “Silly us. We had our prejudices, our pet ideas, our traditions and personal histories. Now we’ve decided to set those aside and be objective. We know that all along you’ve been beyond traditions and prejudices. And we congratulate you on being right.” [pp. 87-88]

Instead, Clapp illustrates what actually happens (assuming that neither side’s advocates are what might be called “radical” foundationalists) by citing the “holistic, perspectival method” by which the Evangelical antifeminists John Piper and Wayne Grudem seek to approach the Evangelical feminists. Piper and Grudem on the one hand speak in very confident foundationalist rhetoric, asking the antifeminists “How do you know that your interpretation of Scripture is not more influenced by your background and culture than by what the authors of Scripture actually intended?”. But on the other hand, they seem to immediately back away from that sort of language by giving a list of five reasons that they are confident in their own position: (1) they regularly search their motives and try to eliminate mere prejudices, (2) they pray for humility, teachability, wisdom, insight, fairness, and honesty (3) they remain firmly committed to the “unbending and unchanging grammatical and historical reality of the biblical texts in Greek and Hebrew, using the best methods of study to get as close as possible to the intentions of the biblical writers”, (4) they test their own exegesis against the standard of the history of exegesis so as to reveal any lurking chronological snobbery on their parts, and (5) they test their conclusions in the real world of practical pastoral experience, seeking the affirmation of godly and mature brothers and sisters [ibid., pg. 88].

Clapp’s summary of how this runs directly counter to the foundationalist rhetoric Piper and Grudem earlier used in asking how the other guy could be sure he isn’t letting prejudices speak in place of Scripture is worth quoting in full:

It seems clear that on many counts that what these very conservative evangelicals appeal to runs against the substance of foundationalism. Rather than being an individualistic epistemology, their epistemology develops its conclusions within the tradition of biblical exegesis and submits its conclusions to the public for all to see and debate. It cannot pretend to be beyond history and in fact hopes to be checked and corrected by history. It does not disallow ongoing, difficult, contestable judgment; in fact, it implicitly demands such. There is, for instance, regular prayer and searching of motives. There is also the imperative of testing conclusions in light of the discernment of “mature and godly people.” Yet not only may “mature and godly people” differ among themselves, it is an ongoing event of judgment to determine who are and what makes “mature and godly people,” to say nothing of the “best methods” of biblical study. [pp. 88-89

Clapp's points here should not be undervalued. The standards which Piper and Grudem invoked are ones which are very "fluid" by comparison to the rigid "certainty" demanded by the form of foundationalism to which "conservative" Evangelicals are often wed. For instance, there is no universal, Cartesian-like "clear and distinct idea" of what constitutes a "mature and godly person" whose judgment may be trusted--the standards used to identify such people are very much intertwined with all sorts of messy, non-objectifiable factors such as personal relationships and community expectations. (This may be one reason why Evangelicals who are also radical foundationalists typically downplay relational and community factors as tests for maturity and godliness and instead rely almost entirely upon excessively restrictive "doctrinal purity" tests). By the same token, anyone familiar with the history of Christian hermeneutics knows that the purportedly "universal" standard of "the grammatical-historical method" of exegesis is far from the only profitable way to engage the text of Holy Scripture. Certainly it is not the sine qua non of "reasonably" engaging Scripture (otherwise, the Apostles themselves did not "reasonably" engage Scripture), nor does it tend to provide "universal" and "indubitable" exegetical constructs (as the history of intra-Evangelical exegetical feuds, in which each side constantly appeals to "the plain meaning of Scripture", quite well shows) [pp. 88-89].

Anticipating the objection that immediately occurs to the foundationalist, Clapp next observes that it is only on foundationalist premises themselves that we are forced to respond to the diversity and complexity of theological debates by choosing between two stark opposites, “objectivity” or “relativism”. In fact, “traditioned inquiry is constrained by many powerful checks and must always answer to the world around it, however that world is perceived.” (pg. 89). By sharp contrast, “foundationalist rhetoric actually makes conversation and conversion more difficult, since it inclines us toward believing that those who disagree are necessarily benighted or ill-intentioned. And who of us tries to listen harder to someone who regards us as stupid or immoral?” (pg. 90). I would add parenthetically that I have seen instances of Evangelical radical foundationalism which do not merely assert that someone who disagrees with Evangelical beliefs is “stupid or immoral”, but worse yet assert that they are actually unregenerate. For of course if they were regenerate they would naturally agree with the Evangelical clear and distinct, universal, atemporal, timeless truths! The ghost of the Cartesian man who presumptuously sets up an infallible chair in his own brain alone walks among us, indeed.

Clapp closes his article by explaining the point with which he opened it, namely, that Evangelicals need to abandon foundationalism in order that they might be “less devout liberals.” Clapp explains that what he means by “liberalism” here is “the liberalism of Kant, Locke, Rousseau, Mill and other beacons of the Enlightenment”, a liberalism “that told us we must escape the particularities of history and tradition, substitute state neutrality for the pursuit of any substantive common good, and allow individuals in “public” to choose autonomously, answering only to the principles of a supposedly universal and innate reason” (pg. 91). This type of liberalism, the very foundation of the secularist Enlightement that replaced Medieval Christendom, “has privatized faith, obsessed us with the nation-state and led us to neglect the church, and made us defer speaking about the God of Israel and Jesus Christ as our firm foundation until we have first proven ourselves in the supposedly more basic terms of foundationalist, universal reason” (ibid). In other words, the type of liberalism which lies at the root of the foundationalist project is a fundamentally anti-Christian philosophy of knowledge and living. It is an enemy of the very faith once for all delivered which the Evangelical mistakenly employs foundationalism to defend.

The kicker, of course, is that abandoning foundationalism will of necessity entail the abandonment of the “absolute certainty” which foundationalism claims it can create–a kind of absolute lack of doubt which certain forms of American Protestantism (particularly “conservative Evangelicalism”) often appear to be so deeply bound up with that to suggest another way of thinking and living instantly invokes alarmist cries of “The sky is falling!” Many Evangelicals seem to be desperately afraid of facing the possibility that what seems “clear and distinct” to them is not at all so to their brother across the street in the other denomination, and worse still, that their brother across the street in the other denomination is not some kind of “unreasonable” person who “twists Scripture” because he has a “preconceived agenda” and “prefers traditions of men over what God has plainly said.” The fear of facing a reality that is far more rich and diverse than a few “clear” slogans can possibly hope to describe with anything approaching adequacy in turn covers over a more basic problem: the existence of doubts that cannot be assuaged by any means which proceed according to the dictates of human autonomy fallibly grappling with “absolute truth” and foolishly pretending to be able to stuff it all, without remainder, into a really tiny, maximally-excluding box called “certainty”. In typical foundationalist fashion, reality is starkly divided into two equal and absolutely irreconcilable options: “Either you believe that my exegesis of this passage is correct, or you do not believe that exegesis is possible at all and therefore that truth cannot be known.” As has been said already several times, the fear and doubt lurking at the bottom of foundationalist systems are ironically the natural products of the foundationalist epistemology itself. Foundationalism simply cannot provide the foundation which it claims to be able to provide. Based on doubt, it dissolves itself into endless, fruitless reactions against doubt.

Clapp thus contrasts what the true Evangelical position should be with the gross caricature that foundationalism distorts it into. Playing off the fact that the liberalism he has defined as emanating from the anti-Christian tendencies of the Enlightenment is a phenomenon which relies upon supposedly “universal” notions which people need only to be reminded of (because they have forgotten them?), Clapp writes:

…We are not liberals who have come to tell people what they always already really knew. We are evangelicals. We confess that Israel and the church are not characters in a greater story called “the world,” but instead that the world is a character in God’s story, a character that does not even know its true name apart from Israel and the church. We are not liberals come to make the gospel intelligible to the world, but are evangelicals come to help the world see why it cannot be intelligible without the gospel. (pp. 91-92)

My conclusion is this. Over the last two hundred years or so, some of the worst features of classical foundationalism have become buried at the heart of contemporary American Protestantism generically speaking, and at the heart of its Evangelical variety in particular. In everything from its morbid fear of “slippery slopes” in doctrine, its obsession with “scientific proofs” of the “literal truth” of Scripture, its absurd belief that all “truth” is inherently propositional in nature, its un-Christian assertion of epistemological and hermeneutical neutrality and exegetical “objectivity”, it reveals itself as a child not of the Christian religion but of Christians so confused by vain philosophy (cf. Col. 3:8) that they end up adopting vain philosophy as the cure for vain philosophy. In some of its more radical forms foundationalism’s implacably impersonal placement of what it calls “Truth” above every other factor, including the basic maintenance of healthy human relationships, leads to a type of theological solipsism, a radical isolation of the individual and his utterly private faith from all moderating and restraining factors outside of his sovereign control. And at the last, in its absolute unwillingness to face other traditions head-on without simply calling them evil names and retreating into an impenetrable fortress of “plain truth”, foundationalism has failed to provide Christians with a workable epistemological vantage point that does not fundamentally compromise central Christian testimonies. Paradoxically given its Evangelical spin’s insistence upon the absolute authority of Scripture, the firm foundation of foundationalism turns out really to be the shifting sand of mere human autonomy.

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