05 January 2017

Riddles of Fundamentalism Part 3: Faith and Epistemology

While often accused of being Anti-Modern and fideistic, Fundamentalist epistemology could be more accurately described as representing a Evidentialism with a strong tendency to rely upon Coherentist arrangements and interpretations of empirical data, all resting upon axiomatic basic beliefs. Its Foundationalist ideology must be understood as a variant of Empiricism and within the general flow of what has come to be known as the Analytic tradition.

Within the Christian spectrum, fideism and philosophical scepticism have been influenced by figures such as Kierkegaard, Hamann, Pascal, Kant and even Derrida. Hume's shadow also looms over their thinking (as something of a catalyst) and while he is part of the British Empirical tradition his thought represents a problem for the school. Fideism is in many ways a rejection of the whole philosophical project (and thus the basis for Empiricism and Modernism). Kant tried and most would agree ultimately failed to satisfactorily answer Hume. Or to put it differently in answering Hume he spawned a new philosophical tradition. From the perspective of those within the Analytic tradition rather than formulate a viable solution to Hume's challenge, he took a wrong turn resulting in endless and self-perpetuating error. Kant's resolution and synthesis (from an Empiricist standpoint) began the process of disintegration, leaving Western philosophy in ruins.

Reid and the adherents of Scottish Common Sense Realism also sought to answer Hume's scepticism, but not by following the Kantian or fideistic path. They asserted a confidence in empiricist epistemology, the inductive and scientific methods and man's ability to interact with, apprehend and even comprehend the world. Fundamentalism the ideological offspring of Reid and the Common Sense school cannot be found within the fideistic spectrum. Though most today would consider their views archaic, Fundamentalists (and many conservative Evangelicals) continue to insist that man's sense can comprehend basic beliefs, interpret evidences and form a coherent system of thought that adequately explains reality (physical, metaphysical and moral) in terms of propositions.

To many this is what faith is, a confidence, belief or even deductive conclusion based on the available evidence. Whether this is the faith of Scripture is point which could be debated.

Faith as presented in Scripture is a belief and confidence in things not seen, a type of spiritual discernment revealed by the Holy Spirit. It is described as foolish and unavailable to the natural man. 

Some (though not usually Fundamentalists) would argue faith is based on an inescapable coherence. Rather than focus on evidences per se, the tendency is to look to coherence as a matrix for all thought. All thought, predication and interpretation function within systems and thus in terms of philosophical criteria the holistic system which offers what we might term comprehensive and integrated coherence is warranted and justified. While philosophically and even rationally satisfactory this methodology is also forced to rely on human spatio-temporal criteria, categories and even conceptualisations. The criteria utilised to determine coherence are (as an Empiricist would point out) limited, defined and delineated by conceptions and interpretations of sense-experience. This objection is to some degree accepted and thus continuing predication is based on an appeal to analogy, which while interesting and even compelling does not fully escape the empiricist critique.

Logic itself, a wondrous tool man has been given is subject to not only the corruptions of the fall in terms of how it is wielded, but is corrupted in its finite temporal limitations and conceptions. Some have deified logic and made it an attribute of God, an expression of His Holy Character and yet clearly the Apostle suggests that logic, even a right and redeemed reason is insufficient to apprehend (let alone comprehend) the mysteries of God and His Kingdom. Faith ultimately transcends any evidences (whether empirical or rational) and represents a different type or order of understanding. It is only by Spirit wrought faith that we can hope to access the revealed mysteries of the Kingdom of God.

This is not to suggest that evidences, coherence and logic have no place. We rely on these concepts to function in the world and to grasp the rudiments of language but ultimately we submit and subordinate our natural intuitions, our limitations as the natural man, even our deeply flawed and limited common sense to the Authority of Christ.

Biblical Fideism (if we are to accept the negatively connotated epithet) is not mysticism that denies the utility of reason. Logic is of great use and import but its employment and certainly its prioritisation are affected by its limitations. Reality and the natural order are revealed as spiritual in nature, that which Scripture says we are unable to discern apart from faith. Ultimately logic itself is finite, a part of the created order. God does not predicate or deliberate as we do. Logic is a tool to seek knowledge to deduce something from available information or to infer something through an exercise in reduction. There's no Scriptural basis to think of God as thinking or reasoning in this way. His expressions to this end need to be understood in accommodationist and anthropomorphic terms.

Logic it will be countered is the tool by which we study and discern His creation. This is easily granted. But is logic the means by which we probe into the eternal and understand the nature of relations in terms of spiritual things? Do we apply Aristotelian or Kantian categories to that which is beyond our frame of reference?

Can we, independent of revelation (or even with it in hand) predicate about metaphysical quantities and limitations? Can we speak of inherence, subsistence or causality with any degree of certainty? What can we hope to know about potentiality or the questions of necessity and contingency? We're speaking about things we cannot know.

All of these categories boil down to questions of relation, the nature of how every particle of matter and every idea correspond to one another. Even positive statements about one thing or idea only have meaning when it can be contrasted with some other actual or conceived reality. The possibilities and the complexity of these relationships are not only infinite but beyond our grasp in even a hypothetical sense. Reality is ultimately metaphysical and yet our predications are limited to what Paul calls the natural or physical. The bridge or gap is not merely a question of quantity but of quality. Even if (hypothetically) we were able to grasp an infinite number of propositions, we could not hope to possess a knowledge that even approximates or is of the same order as God Himself.

If we employ 'logic' when it comes to these metaphysical questions, our logic, necessarily tied to our conceptions of sense-experience will treat these questions not as meta-physical, but as physical and spatio-temporal. Any constructed metaphysic is destined to be reductionist at best, necessarily flawed and thus ultimately false. Logic and rationality are usually reckoned abstract, mathematical, idealised and conceptual. These definitions and perceptions are all true to some extent and yet in every sense, no matter how abstract, the categories and methodology are intimately wed to sense-experience and its limitations.

This is the trap. All interpretations of sense-experience are rooted (necessarily) in conceptualised systems that rest on innate ideas, perceived basic beliefs and subjective individual bias. Empiricist epistemology is a dead end, limited, subjective and unable to fulfill the philosophical quest to explain the nature of reality. The Empiricist quest ends in the bitter recognition that it in fact rests on Idealism.

The Idealist of course must rely on coherence as the test and means of validity. It is the system itself, a holistic coherence that is sought after, one in which every concept and data point is accommodated and integrated. And yet for all that the Idealist quest ends in disappointment and failure. It is subjective both in terms of rationality and basis. In terms of rationality, conceptions and categories are necessarily speculative, hypothetical and thus tentative at best. In terms of basis, the conceptions and categories employed as well as the means by which inductive and deductive inference is employed is still wedded to subjective sense-experience not to mention limitations and influences resulting and produced from one's life context or matrix. Idealism cannot function apart from Empiricism.

This despondent and defeatist circularity does not mean that empirical logic or coherence have no place or role. We necessarily utilise them but it is critical to understand their limitations in order to use them rightly. Once one epistemological paradigm or preference is elevated to a position of determining authority, we have embarked on a path of self-referential autonomy.

Fallen man possesses a limited coherence by which I mean that in man's 'common' experience nature points to certain universal truths. And yet these truths are somewhat inconclusive (even incoherent) and far from concrete or verifiable. Nature teaches us there is a God and even a great deal about Him, but in our fallen state we are unable to properly apprehend who He is let alone worship Him rightly. We know enough to be accountable and thus guilty but apart from the Spirit revealing to us the 'mystery' and 'hidden wisdom' of the Gospel, we cannot hope to discern or deduce truth. At best we will discern partial truths and we will (necessarily) relate them to our individualised epistemic systems. To varying degrees, depending on the proclivities, predilections and capacities of the individual these partial truths will be integrated into a coherent framework, which is necessarily erroneous. This is the genesis of idolatry.

The wisdom is still concealed even after the Resurrection as Paul makes clear to the Corinthians and this reality is by grammatical implication a present and continuing reality. This will sound almost gnostic to some, but in many cases apologists have (in their zeal) to combat gnostic categories missed the reality that New Testament teaching seemed at points to resonate with gnostic thought. That's why Gnosticism was so dangerous. It was antithetical but not in the sense that Christianity was some sort of consummate materialist antipode to Gnosticism's ethereal and phantasmagorical cosmology. The Hellenistic error combated in the New Testament wasn't wholly 'other', nor were the various factions monolithic. It was syncretic, an amalgam of Christianity, Hellenistic philosophy and heretical (Christ rejecting) forms of Judaism.

It could appropriate texts and concepts and yet re-work them in terms of speculative idealised forms and hierarchies, revealing them not as by the Biblical Spirit but through deeds, initiation and various rites. The Church has often combated this error by embracing epistemological categories that not only exclude gnostic assumptions and tendencies but even preclude those provided by the Apostle himself.

Again it must be admitted that nature points to certain truths regarding Divine cosmology and even the moral law but the data is insufficient. These are glowing background lights seen through a fog. As truths they cannot be denied but without concentrated, penetrative light and direction the path through the darkness cannot hope to be found. Into the fog (as it were) steps not a method, not a tool, but a Person who effectively calls upon us to trust in Him and to follow His voice and His path.

Or if we might modify that illustration slightly, in the fog we encounter the kerygma-proclamation. This is the Word of Scripture, the Divine Testimony and revelation of Christ. The Word may be delivered through the foolishness of preaching or even by reading. Either way it's the proclaimed Word as the means by which the Spirit works to regenerate and transform the heart. The Word alone is the means by which we know Christ, trust in Him and follow His voice and path.

Faith it may be said, results from the failure of coherence which drives us to embrace or rely upon Revealed truth. What we might call philosophical faith and its approaches to Scripture are misguided and erroneous attempts to discover the source of the light in the fog (again as it were) by means other than absolute surrender, obedient and continuing trust in the Message of the Messenger.

This confidence, reliance, embrace and trust are not merely intellectual but volitional and in terms of the person holistic. Thus faith also implies not only fiducia or trust but concepts like transformation, regeneration, mortification and obedience. In fact it is the latter which plays a prominent role in the New Testament discourse concerning faith that is largely downplayed in the Protestant Sola Fide tradition. And in terms of Christian Epistemology it may be identified as perhaps the most important aspect in apprehending the nature of what faith actually is. Readers are encouraged to revisit Hebrews 10.19-12.29 for a powerful elaboration of this concept. It is no mere coincidence that in Protestant-Evangelical circles both Hebrews and James are the two most problematic and often ignored books in the New Testament. And yet, their messages in no way counter or contradict the teaching in either Paul's epistles or the Gospels.

The Lutheran-Magisterial Protestant formulation of sola fide, while certainly true on one level is placed with a context and methodology that utilises and demands systemic coherence as the basis for validity. Reduced to the intellectual and rational, it becomes the axiomatic Centraldogma within a system of thought that seeks to integrate not only the rest of Scripture but ultimately nature and even the ordering of society.

This tendency underlies and perhaps belies the Protestant theological narrative regarding its adherence and testimony with regard to Scriptural Authority, and exposes its appropriation of Scholastic methodology. In addition this rationalised understanding of faith continues to provide the theological basis for the zealous but misguided and erroneous quest for a comprehensive worldview.

The Biblical concept of faith is not rooted in coherence or even a coherent body of doctrinal formulation but in trust and obedience.... obedience to the Divine infallible, sufficient and historically preserved text by which we know and submit to the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ. Obedience in the context of faith is complicated and dynamic. It's a work of the Holy Spirit within the regenerated human heart. Outwardly it will be imperfect. In terms of intellect, it will be flawed and corrupted. Perhaps it could be said its most important aspect is that it is living, continuous and persevering. Repentance and Belief are at the heart of the daily Christian life. Any conceptualisation of faith that relegates salvation to merely a past intellectual episode falls far short of what the New Testament presents.

While rejecting coherence as an essential criterion, we can also state the basis for such faith is not mere experience, nor a burning in the bosom as some would conceive it, but an acknowledgement, acceptance and trust in Jesus the Christ, known by his ratified and promised Word of Truth.

Continue reading part 4