On Foundationalism in Theology

Foundationalism is basically the idea that knowledge has to be built on certain foundations – typically, self-evident propositions or axiom, Descartes being the most well-known example of this. In theology, its most well-known and capable proponent was St. Thomas Aquinas. In recent years, thanks more or less to the school of Reformed epistemology, led by Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and William Alston, among others, foundationalism has been pretty much dismantled. I won’t go into the details because it’s actually a pretty long and boring story like much of analytic philosophy.

“Foundationalism has been the reigning theory of theories in the West since the high Middle Ages. It can be traced back as far as Aristotle… Aquinas offers one classic version of foundationalism. There is, he said, a body of propositions which can become self-evident to us in our present earthly state. Properly conducted scientific inquiry consists in arriving at other propositions by way of reliable inference from these (demonstration). A few of these (for example, that God exists) can be inferred from propositions knowable to the natural light of reason.

…within the community of those working in philosophy of knowledge and philosophy of science foundationalism has suffered a series of deadly blows in the last 25 years. To many of those acquainted with the history of this development it now looks all but dead. So it looks to me. Of course, it is always possible that by a feat of prodigious imagination foundationalism can be revitalized. I consider that highly improbable…” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, pp. 26-27).

However, despite broad agreement with status of foundationalism as dead, there are those who hold to it on theological grounds. This is an example I found earlier today:

http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/review/christian_philosophy_a_systematic_and_narrative_introduction

‘This view—that the Bible does not provide us with a set of indubitably known propositions—cannot be reconciled with the best of what the Reformation affirmed. As a matter of fact, with all of their good and necessary references to Christ and to Christian, and not just theistic, philosophy, it is not easy to tell exactly how they might know of this Christ, or of what it means to be Christian. Not only so, but, as Richard Muller points out, it was the very problem of epistemology that was the “single most important contribution of the early Reformed writers” to the area of prolegomena (see his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume 1: Prolegemona to Theology [Baker Books, 2003], 108). This was the case because of the recovery, during the Reformation, of the central and determining place of God’s revelation for all of knowledge. If that is true, and I think it is, then it seems any “Reformational” philosophy worthy of the name must take its starting point—not simply in an “Origin” (as in Dooyeweerd), nor in “Christ,” but in the inscripturated Word of God, which alone is able to tell us who this Christ is. Without an infallible and authoritative, self-attesting Word, any attempt at Christian philosophy will itself be fraught with dialectical tension.’

As far as I can tell from that review, the authors of that volume are not arguing for a distinctively Reformed viewpoint, but that’s an aside. There’s a deeper issue at play here, which the above passage notes – epistemology.

The issue with the foundationalism here is the idea of self-evident, or indubitably known, propositions. Theologically and biblically, it is quite plain that by reason alone (self-evident propositions, for example) one will not arrive at the Truth of the Scriptures, which is Christ. Truth is not a matter of method, whether reasoning from self-evident propositions, discursive reasoning or any other method. This is not to say that the truths of scripture (Paul writes in Romans about God’s law written upon our hearts) cannot be described by reason or reasoned about. The Psalmist prays that his eyes may be opened to behold the wonders of the Law, and that knowledge of God is too wondrous for him to attain.

What one needs to know God and to know the Truth of the Scriptures is not an infallible book or an infallible method but rather repentance, a continual turning of the whole of man, mind, heart, body and soul, towards God, without which not even the most learned philosophers will know God. Only one who loves God and worships God will know God, not one who has the superior deductive method. Infants and children know that which no method of reasoning can arrive at by its own strength.

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9 thoughts on “On Foundationalism in Theology

  1. Kevin Davis January 23, 2014 / 11:49 am

    I think Wolterstorff’s assessment is characteristic of his generation. The current mood and trend is, by contrast, toward revitalizing classical theism, often with broadside attacks on the entirety of 20th century philosophy and theology (and its 19th century roots). I find this intriguing and stimulating, but I am (of course) not entirely convinced, as someone who aligns with Barth’s project. The lines, however, are not hard and fast. You can have someone like John Webster who straddles the line between modern dogmatics (namely Barth) and the scholastics (whether Aquinas or Bavinck).

    Stephen Holme’s book on the Trinity is a good example of the newer generation sweeping the prior generation under the bus. Though I largely agree with his criticisms of social trinitarianism (as would Barth), he goes further and basically calls everyone in the latter 20th century a heretic.

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  2. whitefrozen January 23, 2014 / 8:26 pm

    Classical theism, however, isn’t the same as foundationalism.

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    • Kevin Davis January 23, 2014 / 10:45 pm

      In the West, it is pretty dang hard to separate. But, yes, you are right.

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      • whitefrozen January 25, 2014 / 1:13 pm

        I meant to include as an example the Eastern Orthodox – who affirm the classical conception of God (impassible, infinite, etc) but are definitely *not* foundationalist.

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        • Kevin Davis January 25, 2014 / 7:24 pm

          Yeah, I thought you may have had Hart and others in your mind.

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  3. Joel January 27, 2014 / 7:25 pm

    If that is true, and I think it is, then it seems any “Reformational” philosophy worthy of the name must take its starting point—not simply in an “Origin” (as in Dooyeweerd), nor in “Christ,” but in the inscripturated Word of God, which alone is able to tell us who this Christ is. Without an infallible and authoritative, self-attesting Word, any attempt at Christian philosophy will itself be fraught with dialectical tension.’
    Christians believe in the God-man, the God who is One and Three, and that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility co-exist. So is some degree of dialectical tension inherent to orthodox Christianity?

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    • Joel January 27, 2014 / 7:26 pm

      Also, the early church had the revelation of Christ without the Bible, right? Without any writings at all (besides the OT) in the first few decades! One need not take a Catholic/Orthodox view of tradition to recognize this fact.

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    • whitefrozen January 27, 2014 / 7:30 pm

      There is indeed a real dialectic in Christianity – though reading the quoted passage, the fact that Christ in in quotation marks is somewhat disturbing, honestly.

      But yeah, the dialectic is there – there is also tension, not in the sense of strain but in the sense of genuine mystery. This is not a problem, as far as I can tell.

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