Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Putting the Mental in Fundamentalism

One of the chief problems in dialogue between fundamentalists and progressivists is a lack of proper epistemological foundations. (I know -- you probably want to change channels before I get started....). Epistemology is, in essence, the science of how we know stuff. If someone says that they know the world is going to end, a good question to ask is "How do you know that?" There are lots of people in both camps who believe they know far more than they do. But when the point is pressed, it's often the case that the knowledge rests in someone else's experience (an author they read, "the news," etc...). That's pretty much the case for all of us outside of our narrow range of familiarity and expertise.

The world is a complicated place. We don't have time to become first-hand experts on everything, so we choose to trust experts who have done that hard work. I have to trust that the guy under the hood of my car knows what he's doing. He learned from other people who spent time under the hoods of cars, who in turn learned from still others (as well as having experiences of their own). This is how knowledge works in the real world - by tradition (from the Latin trāditiō [tradō] , "a giving up, delivering up, surrender" or "pass on"). The expression "Let's not reinvent the wheel" is based on the pragmatic truth that we aren't always (or even most of the time) in a position to improve the way we do things. If you don't rely on some tradition, you'd always have to experiment (and would have no time to actually live).

People of all sorts receive traditions that they don't test, but accept prima facie (especially when there's an authority figure behind it). When I was a fledgling medico, I took it on faith that the tradition handed down in textbooks on physiology were solid and well-tested. I didn't see any need to go out and perform bio-chemical experiments to verify everything they said. The same is true for pretty much every discipline (save, perhaps, philosophy). We accept on authority what we haven't the time, skills, or necessity to pursue further. That's life, and don't let anybody shame you for being realistic.

In the arena of human religious experience, America has gone overboard with denouncing spiritual authority and tradition. While most people couldn't get past two sentences on why they believe in materialistic evolution ("well...I'm not an expert!" "Everybody knows there's no need in pressing the matter further!" "It's in textbooks!"), if you dissent from that position you are expected to be an encyclopedia of refutational data. It's not fair, but that's how evolution deniers are treated. (Global Warming deniers are in the same boat, though the second the shoe is on the other foot, authority is appealed to.)

I think that the general populace has a fundamental misunderstanding of how biblicists approach the world. They seem to think that when we find conflicts or disagreements between what is encountered in one area of human experience and what is revealed in Scripture, that we just mindlessly toss out the contrary. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do not believe that we have the right to toss out evidence from either book of God's revelation (i.e., the created order and the Scriptures).

Cornelius Van Til said that there's no such thing as a brute fact or a mute fact. Every fact is tied to its creator and finds its meaning and significance in relation to God. (Mikhail Bakhtin makes much the same point in terms of literary addressivity and authorship - so you see postmodernists also acknowledging this truism.) As people who have been convinced of the trustworthiness of the Scriptures by a supernatural working of the Holy Spirit (WCF 1.1), we are intellectually compelled to align every fact we encounter in relation to its creator. We know from the Scriptures that the whole created order has fallen into disrepair. We also know that our own heart (the Biblical word for the seat of intellect and will) twists our experiences and hides the truth from us.

Because we know that we have a corrupted source of information in the fallen natural order and are incapable of perceiving the truth through our own devices, we set every truth claim against the backdrop of Holy Writ. We are not free to throw out what we find in nature, but are compelled to seek the personally-perceptable order placed therein by a rational, personal God.

As for the special revelation - the Holy Scriptures - it's not the fundamentalists who feel free to rearrange the Word to our liking (vide supra).


Doug Hagler said...

"it's not the fundamentalists who feel free to rearrange the Word to our liking"

If only that were true, I would have much more respect for fundamentalism/literalism/inerrancy/etc. in general. As it stands, it seems clear to me that any person interpreting scripture is at the same time selecting from it passages/themes/etc which will support their stance and often ignoring passages/themes/etc which refute the stance.

The crucial difference, for me, is that 'progressive theology', for the most part, admits this fact, whereas 'fundamentalist theology' pretends that it is the only branch of theology which doesn't engage in this kind of selectivity. Because of what appears to be fundamental dishonesty, I have a lot of trouble seeing value in fundamentalist theology from the get-go. I also have the same trouble in progressive theologies which do engage in the same (self-?) deception.

in reference to what I see as your more central point, dealing with the necessity of appeals to authority, you're right that to a degree they are necessary. Where you and I differ is in how much value we place in what you choose as authorities, compared to what I choose as authorities...also in the problem outlined above, which we've been over before I think, so I need not go on.

Chris said...


Specific examples, please, of where I (or any Reformed fundamentalists) have willfully ignored passages or themes which refute our claims of inerrancy.

What amazes me is the arrogance of the last century in theological scholarship (so-called). It's a century replete with claims of the church having missed the point for 250, 500, 1100, 1200, 1400, or 1500 years.

will said...

The selectivity you reference is far overstated. It does occur - and that is a testament to the dishonesty or intellectual sloppiness on the part of fundamentalists. However, in my experience, it occurs with less frequency than is often asserted. One who truly regards Scripture as authoritative in the way Chris describes is obliged to take the whole of Scripture (and, as Chris pointed out, the whole of empirical facts / data).

Most accusations of this selectivity I have heard hinge on a failure to grasp why the NT does not continue with the entire law from the Hebrew Bible - and what behaviors are to be normative for Christians. I also frequently see such charges leveled where perceived inconsistencies in the text are in play - where a fundamentalist / inerrantist is obliged to reconcile them in some fashion - or give the benefit of the doubt to the text (e.g. that they fail to properly understand the meaning of the text). Additionally, persons often level charges by lifting one passage out of context in such a way that its meaning is damaged - sometimes from misunderstanding, but often because that person seeks an occasion to discredit via the cheap shot.

What I'm not seeing are the hordes of Reformed fundamentalists denying portions of the Bible wholesale. Like any flawed and sinful people, fundamentalists fail in their objectives sometimes, and need to keep a close rein on their interpretations to insure these are not self-serving ... but I just don't see the widespread incidence of this that is commonly asserted.

Aric Clark said...

@ Chris

Here's a humorous approach by a former fundy to the problem of inerrancy.

You ask for examples of "willful" ignorance. Though such exist their less of an issue because they are usually as Will says just lazy or sloppy. The problem is "unavoidable" ignorance. Neither you nor I is capable of holding everything form scripture or every fact we hear or encounter in our head. We cannot possibly "take in the whole". We are always selecting, consciously and subconsciously. Our filters are the only way we can actually make meaning out of anything. Many of those filters are ideological, emotional and otherwise designed to promote our own preferences. No scholar or theologian has access to scripture free from their own biases. It is, as you said, our heart "twists our experiences and hides the truth from us".

This is as true with scriptural interpretation as any other form of knowing.

Good stuff. You're right that the problem has epistemological roots. You're right that both sides are making authority claims, appealing to different authorities. There is no objective way to arbitrate and decide whose authorities are right. In general I think the problem is unresolvable along these lines. Barring an Elijah-esque confrontation with the prophets of Baal, we're left to try and sort it out for ourselves.

Chris said...


Thanks for the thoughtful and measured comments. bring the dry wood, I'll bring the water (you guys are still in drought, right?), and we'll have us a time! said...

Actually, I don't know anyone in the mainline renewal I'd call a "fundamentalist" unless it's used as in the title of JI Packer's book years ago to mean "evangelical" or "biblicist".

But then again, I don't equate "reformed" and "fundamentalist" generally either.

Great post.

regressivepresby said...

I love epistemology. A great little (as in short, not as in insignificant) book is Leslie Newbigin's "Proper Confidence." Essentially he's using Michael Polyani's (Polanyi?) insights "Personal Knowledge." If you've not read it, I commend it to you. Good post.

grace & peace,

will said...

"Actually, I don't know anyone in the mainline renewal I'd call a "fundamentalist" unless it's used as in the title of JI Packer's book years ago to mean "evangelical" or "biblicist"."

You're right about this, of course. But one of the widespread (to my mind intellectually lazy, factually wrong, and rhetorically unnecessary) charges being leveled at those involved in mainline renewal is that they are, in fact, fundamentalists. The more colorful assertions of this type usually include references to groups like the Taliban.

The word has a definition - the people to whom it is being applied don't fit the definition. However, because it is being used solely as a term of contempt - I see no real reason to evade it. The people employing that term in this way mean people who believe the Bible to provide a true account. (In literal terms - there are obvious metaphoric statements, but where it makes a literal claim it is taken as correct.)

Tim said...

What amazes me is the arrogance of the last century in theological scholarship (so-called). It's a century replete with claims of the church having missed the point for 250, 500, 1100, 1200, 1400, or 1500 years.

Great comment and great post. BTW, I was never tempted to "change" the channel: quite the contrary, the mere mention of epistemology and van Til piqued my interest!