Intellectual Justification and the “Reformed”

[Substantially edited May 1, 2010. Unfortunately, the original article by Steve Bush from which I herein cite appears to have been removed from the Internet. Throughout this post, I am referring to a group of people I call "Evangelical-Reformed," which is a sub-group of people who mix generic American Evangelical beliefs with a few stripped-down ideas they have taken from the Reformed Faith to create an odd hybrid view. Most of the time in this post, I refer to these people and their views as "ERs".]

In Part 1 of his review of a recent “conservative” book, Reclaiming the Center, Steve Bush writes

Across the board, the contributors to Reclaiming the Center reject the idea that we can obtain certain, indubitable knowledge. One of my greatest hopes is that conservative evangelicals will hear this well, since I think by and large they still have a significant attachment to the impossible ideal of certainty. The belief that one possesses certitude has destructive consequences, on a personal relational level and on a political level, so this unanimous insight from Reclaiming the Center is extremely important.

Bush is here pointing out a very unbalanced Evangelical obsession with “Truth” – or rather, an obsession with a parochial concept of “Truth.” Many ERs claim that they have no philosophy or tradition in their understanding of “Truth,” but that philosophy and traditions are “obviously” what is wrong with everyone else’s understanding of “Truth.” The more militant such people are, the less they try to understand other views. Other views result merely from the distorting influences of philosophy and tradition, and are therefore unworthy of serious consideration when placed next to the ERs’ own obviously Berean-like attitude of simply taking Scripture “at face value” and rejecting whatever does not “agree with” Scripture. Reflective and self-critical minds might want to probe deeper into the meaning of this rhetoric, but such probings cannot be done in the presence of men in the grip of this viewpoint. In the minds of those who think this way, merely attaching the words “the plain meaning of Scripture” to their own positions automatically ends all discussion and leads by inexorable logic to the conclusion that if oneself disagrees with their views, oneself is actually disagreeing with Scripture. Atop this attitude is built a tower of epistemological “certainty” that nothing can ever shake.

Bush points out, however, that this idea of “certainty” is highly destructive on the personal and political levels. There is nothing wrong with believing in Absolute Truth, but there is a great deal wrong with simplistically believing that one’s own perception of Absolute Truth is itself Absolute. This view leads ultimately to epistemological, and at last to social, solipsism because it permits individual men and women to draw a stark line between “Absolute Truth” (really, their perception of Absolute Truth) and Everyone Else. Because in their own minds their views are equivalent with Absolute Truth, anything which disagrees with what is in their own minds is by definition compromise and error. It is like the old joke about the elderly Scots-Presbyterian minister who told his wife one morning, “There is no one left faithful but me and thee, and I have my doubts about thee.”

In this light, Bush takes note of the common rhetoric that issues forth from believers in this kind of “certainty” when they are challenged:

Yes I know everyone is afraid that their kid is going to stop believing in Absolute Truth, and soon thereafter convert to satanism and start doing drugs, but there are other things to talk about.

This is an insightful point. These days, ERs have mastered the technique of issuing diatribes that express their deep-rooted fear that if their view about the human knowing process and its relationship to truth is not Absolutely Correct then they will have nothing at all to hold onto. Without a one-to-one correspondence between their theories of truth and Truth Itself, they fear that they will be no better off than skeptics, relativists, and “postmodernists”, adrift on an endless sea of possibility, doubt, and intellectually untidy complexity. Fear drives this perspective, and fear destroys its ability to engage other viewpoints with an attitude of humility, charity, and patience.

Bush continues:

It is true that the word “postmodern” does still occur in the academy, but only casually and not as an analytic tool. No one is advancing “postmodern” as an intellectual project nor has anyone for some time, and it would be exceedingly foolish for Christians to do so in the name of “relevance.” This isn’t to say that particular thinkers who have been identified as postmodern (none of whom viewed themselves as participating in a project called postmodernism) aren’t still read or don’t have important things to say. This is just to say that we no longer talk about postmodernism, we talk about the specific views and insights of particular thinkers, e.g., Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and we treat their body of thought on its own terms.

This, too, is a very important recognition. ERs often describe something they call “postmodernism” by means of lists of general, vague, and ultimately unhelpful terms. “Postmodernism” is fallaciously characterized as “relativism”, and its adherents accused of “denying that we can know anything.” It is true that some things that get called “postmodernism” are guilty of such problems, but it is not true that there is a coherent, identifiable paradigm called “postmodernism” which neatly fits anyone who criticizes the epistemological theories of such apologists. Questioning a particular epistemological theory does not constitute automatic proof that one does not believe in Truth. At best, it merely means that one wishes to examine a particular theory of how Truth is known.

In reality, what ERs call “postmodernism” is more-or-less an internal attempt by Enlightenment modernism to correct certain excesses of its larger over-arching paradigm. As such, it may be cogently argued that “postmodernism” is itself just another form of the Enlightenment Project. Like the ancient Greek ontological dichotomy between the One and the Many and its epistemological dichotomy between Knowledge and Skepticism, the modernism / postmodernism struggle is a battle between two sides of the same coin of Unbelief.

God does not promise us modernism’s intellectual “certainty”, but whether the advocates of “certainty” care to try to understand it or not this does not mean conversely that we have nothing but “relativism”. Admitting what is really undeniable, namely, that our creaturely finitude affects our perceptions of Truth, is not the same thing as “denying that Truth can be known”. Agreeing with some of the epistemological and hermeneutical points that are held by some people who get labeled “postmodernists” is not the same thing as being irrational, denying that biblical exegesis is possible, or falling away from Truth and becoming a malicious deceiver. Yet, such language frequently passes for substantive argument in ER apologetics circles.

In Part 2 of his article, Bush makes another cogent statement:

Here’s a method for discussion between conservatives and postconservatives that is more fruitful than truth. Since the conservative evangelicals do not believe that we can know with certitude, they have to admit that whatever truth-claims they advance as knowledge could possibly be mistaken. In other words, it may well turn out that what they take to be true really isn’t true, since we can’t rule out various sceptical hypotheses (maybe I’m mistaken, maybe I’m deceived, maybe I’m a brain in a vat). So any debate is not really over what is and isn’t true, it’s about whether or not I have good reasons for what I’m claiming. This is called justification: Can I justify my belief by providing good reasons to hold it and by countering the reasons my opponents offer against the belief?

The issue of the epistemic justification of intellectual positions is extremely important. Many ERs seem to believe that it is not necessary to make a distinction between “truth” and “my perception of truth”, or between “ground of truth” and “warrant for truth”, or between “knowledge” and “justification of knowledge claims”. For many, it seems that to challenge any of the latter is necessarily to challenge the former as well. Disagree with Exegetical Construct X and you might as well be calling Jesus and Paul liars. Disagree with Historical Construct Y and you might as well be saying the Protestant Reformation was a huge mistake and that we should all go back to Rome as quickly as possible. Take seriously any view that originates from outside of “well-established Evangelical beliefs” and you might as well be assaulting Truth Itself and demonstrating that you’ve become “irrational”.

A big part of this type of unhelpful thinking is the fact that ER apologists typically isolate themselves from serious study of concerns outside of a very narrow sphere that they label “biblical” or “spiritual”. ERs have a radical concept of “Truth” and how it is obtained. To sum it up in two points, their view is that (1) the category of “tradition” is nearly always, if not always, severely distortive of Truth, and (2) it is possible, by spending most of one’s time reading the Bible (especially in the original languages), to simply bypass “tradition” and arrive at “pure Truth.” The Bible is not just the only infallible rule of faith (the orthodox Reformation view of sola Scriptura), but the only reliable rule of faith – indeed, the only reliable rule of all things. Accordingly, to even get them to listen to a contrary argument, every part of the argument must be attached to a prooftext from Scripture and each prooftext must match the ER understanding of “the plain meaning of Scripture.”

In this connection, ERs often portray themselves as being able to fully remove all “unbiblical” blinders from their eyes when they read Scripture. By contrast, whoever they are contending with fails to remove the blinders, and so winds up disagreeing the “clear” Bible. Thanks to their simplistic understanding of the issue of the justification of knowledge, ERs typically believe that there is a 1:1 correspondence between their views and “the plain meaning of Scripture.” With this view controlling their minds, they tend to find it very difficult to respect other positions and refrain from abusive attacks upon them.

At this point I must register some caution about Bush’s article. Toward the end of Part 2 he writes:

For instance, the biblical theology that N.T. Wright is advocating involves massive reformulations of the doctrines of salvation, ecclesiology, and god that are extremely relevant for the directions postconservatives want to go. EP Sanders, NT Wright, JDG Dunn, Richard B. Hays (and many other New Testament scholars) are challenging (and have debunked) the doctrine of justification by grace through faith that Luther bequeathed, and they are reformulating soteriology along much less individualistic lines.

I don’t think this is a very helpful way to present this set of issues, which is very near-and-dear to the hearts of ERs. On the one hand, I understand the tactic of deliberately rhetorically offending an opponent to try to jar him into more seriously considering what you are saying. But I do not think that describing the work of N.T. Wright and others as a “debunking” of Luther is a good or helpful way to put matters. It is true that Luther’s doctrine of justification was formulated in response to some particular problems in the 16th century and so bears the imprint of the 16th century even today in the 21st, but at the same time, given the errors of Luther’s day his view was not a manifest error.

We may be able to learn some things that Luther didn’t know by paying attention to advances made since Luther, but this does not entail abandoning Luther (or the Reformation itself). We don’t need to throw out Luther; we do need to throw out certain radicalizations which have illegitimately come to be thought of as legitimate extensions of Luther. For instance the widespread suspicion among ERs of all types of sacramental theology, which they wrongly take to be expressions of “adding works to faith” and so of “compromising the Gospel.” The Reformers did not see sacramental theology as a slur on faith “alone” precisely because they did not view the sacraments as works of men. By contrast, ERs do view the sacraments (or in their parlance, the ordinances) as works of men, and so they cannot help but see high talk about the sacraments “doing” something as a contradiction of sola fide. The dispute is over the origin and nature of the sacraments, but in their rush to disdain all that does not immediately present itself to their minds as “agreeing with” the “plain meaning” of Scripture, ERs often short-circuit the necessary process of making their case in a non-question begging manner.

Writing about the essayists in Reclaiming the Center, Bush might as well be talking about the general mass of ERs:

because they have structured their theology to depend on epistemology, the whole structure teeters like a house of cards. They have made theological doctrines depend on biblical authority, they have made biblical authority depend on foundationalist epistemology, they have made foundationalist epistemology depend on a correspondence theory of truth, and they have made their correspondence theory of truth depend on propositions. If propositions don’t exist, then down goes the foundationalist epistemology, down goes the bible, down goes their theology.

This is no more than to say “He who marries today’s science is tomorrow’s widower”, and it is an incisive criticism of the ER obsession with using Enlightenment tools of “reason” to engage the text of Holy Scripture and to describe the place and mission of the Christian Church in the world today. One does not have to agree with Bush’s particular views on the nature and utility of propositions in order to appreciate the larger point that the discussion that needs to be had within Reformed is by and large not being had. If ERs, with their unrecognized capitulation to what Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) has called the assumptiosn of “the didactic Enlightenment”, are allowed to tyrannize others and squelch discussion mere rhetoric about “postmodernism” and “skepticism,” we will never get beyond useless speculations about the hearts of other people, which, after all, only God can see.

Bush next opines:

Conservative theology deserves the same treatment Karl Barth prescribed for Satan: a sharp, quick glance and no more. By their own admission and by others’, evangelical theology does not display intellectual rigor or creativity.

I agree that ER theology severely lacks intellectual rigor and creativity. In fact, I think that for a sector of the Church that claims to be so unswervingly faithful to the Reformation the ER sector is actually a lot more like the “Romanism” that the Reformers fought than like the Reformers themselves. One of the most bitterly ironic and devastating effects of the absurd ER belief that they have “just Scripture” without any admixture of tradition is the fact that this creates a mirror-image of the worst features of late Medieval “Romanism”. That is, the “no philosophy or tradition in my exegesis” distortion of sola Scriptura which is practiced by ERs constitutes a dead Traditionalism like that of 16th century “Romanism”, but which unlike 16th century “Romanism” is paradoxically unaware that it is a Traditionalism.

The understanding of “tradition”, its nature, meaning, and function, that is typically held by ERs is shallow. It is obviously very difficult to carry on an intelligent and fruitful discussion with men who will in one breath viciously condemn you for your “traditions” but in the next viciously defend “the traditional Protestant reading of Scripture”. The irony of holding a position which condemns the University of Paris for presuming to condemn the Protestant Reformers while simultaneously holding up Westminster Theological Seminary as the seemingly pre-eminate location of “the Doctors of the Church” seems lost on men who are so anti-traditional that they think it is wisdom to say “We don’t believe in tradition. It’s contrary to our historic position.” This sloppiness of the ER cultural endeavor must be resisted if progress is to be made in today’s controversies.

Once again, one does not have to agree with everything that Steve Bush says in these articles – and I do not agree with everything he says! – in order to see some of the contours of the larger discussions that are going on and how those contours are relevant to present intra-Reformed disputes. One huge issue that is being missed in most of the conversations I see is the issues of “justification of knowledge” that Bush’s article highlights.

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