Foundationalism, Certainty, and Faith

I would like to see more clarity on the issue of “foundationalism” by those who use the term. These days it is something of a pejorative term, a misguided, outdated relic of a past age that has been supplanted by an emerging epistemology and theology. One way to undermine someone else’s position these days is to label it “foundationalist,” and then you have already scored major points against it. My concern is that the term is being thrown around without much regard for what it means, what important distinctions should be made between various positions, and how foundations are, in a sense, inherent to knowledge itself.

I have often read that Christian fundamentalism (whose origin lies in the theology of the old Princetonians) operates according to a foundationalist paradigm because the inerrant Bible serves as the foundation for epistemological certainty. Certainty as such is often maligned as arrogant, unrealistic, or both. However, I think this charge is unfair. There is a massive difference between philosophical foundationalism and the doctrines of biblical authority and inerrancy. Philosophically speaking, foundationalism represents an attempt to ground all knowledge on universal principles of reason (“foundations”) and not on divine revelation. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was the starting place, the foundation, upon which his epistemology was built. It was a universal principle that all people could affirm in their own consciousness. Descartes, who represents the beginning of the Enlightenment, represents an epistemological shift in Western thought from revelation as the ground of knowledge to the unimpeachable assumptions of the thinking subject. In other words, foundationalism (in the narrow, philosophical sense) began when man turned to himself as the foundation.

The Reformers and their heirs (post-Reformation scholastics, leading up to the Princetonians and now modern conservatives) did not operate according to this paradigm at all. They took their starting point not from the thinking subject, but from divine revelation (i.e., Scripture). Michael Horton argues that Protestant Scholasticism, in contrast to the Roman Catholic Scholasticism that preceded it, was actually anti-foundationalist. Proceeding not from universal principles of reason or human speculation, the Protestant Scholastics started with the Bible as their primary criterion of truth. On the other hand, Steve Wellum has argued that this represents a position known as “revelational foundationalism,” since the Scripture does, indeed, serve as a foundation for knowledge. Whatever you want to call it, I think this distinction needs to be recognized, but the literature often blows right by it as though Warfield and Kant belong to the same epistemological family. In fact, they are very far apart from one another.

But as to the issue of “foundations” themselves, I don’t see why they should be considered such nasty things in the first place, so long as you have the right ones. If by “foundationalism” you mean one who starts with the thinking subject as the ground of all knowledge, then by no means am I a foundationalist. But if you mean simply one who seeks warrants for his beliefs, then count me in. To me, it is the height of absurdity to commend an epistemology because it doesn’t have anything to support it or to argue about who is less certain of what they believe. And I believe that, instinctively, we all understand this, whether we say we do or not. We live and operate this way in all aspects of life. Knowledge is inherently “foundationalist” (in a broad sense of the term). Just because the Enlightenment guys built their epistemology on the wrong foundation does not mean that all foundations are therefore wrong.

Taking divine revelation as the foundation of knowledge, therefore, I affirm that certainty is possible. This is not the certainty of a Descartes, who begins with the self and proceeds to establish a body of truth based on finite human reason. Rather, it is the certainty of faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. This is completely opposite of what the world thinks of faith. To most people, “faith” is belief in something that is absurd or at least not demonstrably true. This comes out in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where Robert Langdon tells Sophie that all religions are built on fabrications, but it is the nature of faith to believe in spite of these fabrications. The Bible does not ask me to believe fabrications; it asks me to believe the truth and the One who is Truth (John 14:6). So faith is not a blind leap into the absurd; it is trust in a reliable Person.

I think this is where our society’s understanding of faith goes wrong. For most people, faith has to do with facts. Certain facts are either true or untrue, but “faith” accepts them as true even when they are demonstrably untrue. I think this is misguided because it confines faith to mere intellectual assent to the truth of a fact. Biblical faith, while not excluding facts, is trust in a Person whose nature and character have been revealed to us as truthful, reliable, and dependable. I may not have seen Jesus rise from the dead, but I believe what God has said concerning that fact because I know God to be truthful in what he says. Therefore, even when I do not have access to scientific demonstration of facts (such as the resurrection), I trust in the reliable testimony of the One who certifies those facts for me. I think of it this way: when I get on an airplane, I don’t have to know how everything works in order to put my faith in the pilot to get me to my destination safely. It doesn’t mean that the “facts” about how everything works are wrong, it just means that I don’t have personal access to them. I have entrusted them to a competent, trained pilot, whose credentials are known. My faith, then, ultimately rests on him or her. So it is in the Bible. We don’t believe because we see; we believe because the testimony we have received comes to us from a reliable Source, the one true and living God who cannot lie. Faith, then, can take the form of certainty when it is directed to the promises of God. Doubt is not something to revel in or be proud of; every time I see it in the Bible, it is explicitly contrasted with faith. “Oh, you of little faith; why did you doubt?” It wasn’t that the disciples had to see with X-ray vision the inner-workings of divine power evident in Jesus’ command over nature in order to believe. It was, rather, that they should have trusted in the Man they knew to be the Son of God. That is what it means to walk by faith and not sight.

So, am I a foundationalist? Broadly, yes. Narrowly (in the sense of the Enlightenment paradigm stemming from Descartes), no. I hope that these distinctions will be more evident in this discussion in the future.

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4 Responses to “Foundationalism, Certainty, and Faith”

  1. dritsema Says:

    Aaron you wrote: “But as to the issue of “foundations” themselves, I don’t see why they should be considered such nasty things in the first place, so long as you have the right ones…”

    I think the problem is in the determining of the “right ones.”

    The very essence of modernity challenges the notion of “right ones” without first establishing these via mathematics, science, or some other verifiable means (compelling argument and logic perhaps as one).

    It was the question of the “right ones” that got Galileo in trouble with his faith. Catholic leadership was not at all willing to allow one of its own to challenge the theological notion of the world as a place of perfection. Galileo’s observations questioned what they considered foundational and certain. Ultimately his scientific discovery showed the weakness of a foundationalism.

    Immmanuel Kant talked about throwing off the “guardians” of orthodoxy.

    I am not anti-foundational, and in fact I am probably very much a foundationalist in my practice of Christian faith. But I am also open-minded enough to think through afresh various areas of my theology. That cannot be done in an environment where the “answers” are provided and must be followed (as they serve as the foundations for everything else).

    For example, if one concludes that open theism is outside the bounds of Christianity–fine. But if you conclude that Calvinism is foundational to Christianity and that open theism cannot be talked about or considered seriously, then we have a problem of intellectual intregrity–as our foundations interfere with the process of learning, faith, and open-mindedness.

  2. morpheus Says:

    I will honest Aaron that I didn’t actually read this whole post…

    But after the first couple paragraphs, I would say that, although it is not very academic in nature, Rob Bell has some great thoughts about this in Velvet Elvis…

    -cory

  3. Myles Says:

    new blog addy:

    mwerntz.wordpress.com

  4. Stephen Says:

    I’ve been looking for Horton’s writings on this topic. I know he just addressed it at the recent emerging church conference @ WTS. Does he talk about foundationalism is some book or article to which you’re referring?

    thanks,

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