Down the Rabbit Hole: Postmodernism and Presuppositionalism

I, along with the rest of the millennial generation, am a child of postmodernism. Postmodernism is the pervading ethos of the current generation, for good or for ill, and it’s nigh impossible to outright ignore it. Whether by appropriating particular tenets of postmodernism or by discounting and discrediting its validity, contemporary intellectual enterprises must grapple with postmodernism, as was necessary for modernism in the early 1900s and romanticism in the 1800s.

In theological circles, postmodernism has not gone unnoticed. Baker Academic, for example, has published an excellent series titled The Church and Postmodern Culture. (Westphal’s volume Whose Commnity? Whose Interpretation, for example, is one that I would recommend to any reader of Scripture willing to examine her own method of reading.) One of the charges laid at the feet of the postmodern is that “all truth is relative.” Although this grenade is usually tossed by well-meaning, though overly protective, conservative scholars or pastors, one must be careful to differentiate between the different streams of postmodernism. While some postmodern would say that all “truth” (howsoever defined) is relative, another would say that statements of faith are always historically-, socially-, and culturally-conditioned, and as such they ought to be treated not as once-for-all statements of fact but as statements which may be true but are always open to revision and re-interpretation or re-imagination. May it suffice to say that not all postmodern positions necessarily entail that absolute truth is a myth.

In fact, this second stream of postmodernism intuitively seems correct. Short of a simplistic view of language or a naive conception of the history of dogma, the proposition that any doctrine X is subject to change does seem inarguable. Although the hope of anchoring theology in an unchanging list of fundamentals might engender confidence in the conception of an historically-consistent orthodoxy, the evolution of theological conceptions does militate against that idea. (It would not do, either, to suggest that all deviations from the presently-conceived orthodoxy are, in fact, a result of “the liberals” or whomever else tampering with the fides receptus.)

If we grant the premise that any theological formulation can be revised and corrected, what becomes of theology as a received faith? That is to say, if we believe that statements of faith are always tentative (one of the central theses of Olson’s Reformed and Always Reforming),  can it reasonably be asserted that there is a static orthodoxy? Furthermore, and more pressingly, can it be reasonably be proclaimed that this Christianity deserves obedience over against that Christianity or even that other religion?

These kinds of questions are apologetic in nature. One of the methods of arguing for this form of Christianity over against any other has been van Tillian presuppositionalism, given a definitive treatment most recently in Oliphint’s Covenantal Apologetics. I will not spend much time outlining Oliphint’s book. In short, presuppositional (or covenantal)  apologetics begins with the notion that all systems of thought begin with a certain set of first principles. The soundness of any system depends on the truthfulness of those first principles. In response to the growing modernism of early 20th century theologians, van Til correctly put his thumb on the problem, which was that certain theologians were embracing first principles that directly contradicted (what van Til said was) the plain meaning of Scripture. And so, van Til’s apologetic centered on the premise, first, that Scripture comes from God and can be trusted when correctly interpreted.

Presuppositional apologetics has been heralded by many because of the high place that it gives to Scripture, and because its practitioners do not need to be experts in history, science, philosophy, etc. They need simply to believe the Bible and not move from that, because all people have presuppositions and it just so happens that the presuppositional’s presupposition concerning the Bible as an epistemological foundation is correct. Now, I don’t intend to investigate the tenability of presuppositionalism as an apologetic method. However, I believe that it is does have some problems.

The chief problem is the one of external verification–that is, proving a system to be true with evidence that does not belong within the system itself. For example, one external verification for Scripture’s truth could be archaeological finds that correspond to the witness of Old or New Testament history. However, the presuppositionalist would find such external verifications as merely tangential to the witness itself. The external evidence can only either support the system or be ignored/explained away/etc. And yet, it’s not difficult to imagine this as a plugging-your-ears kind of approach. This, when combined with the proper impulse to want external verification, makes presuppositional seem not so much as a logical argument as either a) a stubborn refusal to listen to others or b) more of a rhetorical tool than a rational argument.

Nevertheless, because the presuppositional argument must begin with a belief in the veracity of its own starting point, it’s necessarily circular and engages in question begging. Of course, it can be argued that any system of thought is necessarily circular. However, the presuppositionalist embraces the circularity, pointing out that others are circular as well. Any foundationalist epistemology will have this “problem.” Wolterstorff’s Reason within the Bounds of Religion is an incredible and short work that effectively demolished foundationalism as a tenable model of knowing. If we do away with foundationalism, and with it traditional presuppositionalism, what’s left?

In terms of persuasion, from the human perspective, how is it that somebody moves from a denial of or apathy concerning the truth-claims of Christianity to a whole-hearted acceptance? One cannot deny the Spiritual work in the person. There is always some act of God in conversion. But, on the other side of the equation, what is the motivating force behind conversion?

The concept of intuition would seem correct, although what comes across as intuitively correct depends on the cultural within which one knows (contra Reid, who believed that “common sense” intuition was transcultural). I’m not convinced that intuition as such can be completely discarded, but it ought to be tempered. (Perhaps the intuitive impulse should be trusted more when the intuition would seem to contradict what had been traditionally believed by the individual?)

A more promising capacity could be what Calvin referred to as the sensus divinitatis, or the “sense of the divine.” Of course, the sensus doesn’t necessarily entail that a God exists. One could interpret it evolutionarily, as Armstrong does, as man being homo religiosus — that is, humanity has an innate impulse to seek the “ineffable.” Whether the sensus is a result of an imago dei anthropology or some evolutionary feature, it would seem to be an innate capacity that could motivate individuals to seek God. Of course, one would have to be careful to point out that the capacity is not infallible. But, it’s a reasonable first step.

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