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:


‘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.


More Natural Theology

It seems that the question of natural theology is one of epistemology, specifically epistemological method. No one denies that the heavens declare the glory of God, etc – the question is can/how one to know of God through nature. Here I think it’s important to get a line on exactly what one means by ‘natural’. I take ‘natural’ to refer to human nature before the fall – this was our ‘natural’ state. I would take a Bonhoeffer-esque line in this regards – which means I would hold that, contra (say) Aquinas, our natural state, our created state, did not include knowledge of good and evil – our knowledge of good/evil is a product of our fallen nature which comes as a result of Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit in the Garden. To quote a friend (this was in reference to natural law, but the principle applies here since it relates to how one comes to know the good):

‘He writes His laws upon the heart not because after the fall Knowledge of Good/Knowledge of Evil was now a delectable, nutritious, and healthy adjunct to the Tree of Life, but because He is in our very being, drawing us, such that if anything we do is good it was itself wrought in God (Jn. 3:19-21), “for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).’

This has to do with epistemological method – how does one come to know truths in theology? For Aquinas, foundationalism is in play – one can arrive at certain truths (aspects of the natural law tradition as exemplified in Aquinas) via pure reason apart from faith – to quote paraphrase Pope Benedict, certain truths of morality can be arrived at by reason alone apart from faith. I would hold with Bonhoeffer that such a position is mistaken, and that apart from the presence of God truth as such cannot be arrived at by pure reason.