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Modernism Shift

Postmodern History

The Enlightenment movement enshrinedreason with the result that scientific objectivity was elevated above any claimof biblical revelation. As modernism yielded to postmodernism subjectivitylikewise replaced reason with individual revelation- to the extent that thevery nature of existence and reality became open to personal interpretation.Holmes believes that Christian scholarship should follow the Augustinian viewwhich brings a disciplined reason to theological issues- enhancing rather thandisplacing biblical revelation.

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Related Scripture: Acts 26: 25

"Some knowledge of the past isa condition of practical wisdom in the present," says Hastings Rashdall atthe end of his three-volume Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. Thecurrent postmodern challenge is a case in point, for its rejection of Enlightenmentreason reshapes an old debate about the relation of reason to revelation whichis fundamental for Christian scholarship. Challenging modernity's rule ofreason is nothing new, as we shall see, but it does affect what we then say notonly about reason itself but also about revelation, and so about Christianlearning.

The Enlightenment view of reason had idealized the kind of scientificobjectivity that Francis Bacon's inductive methods envisioned, based on studiedevidence independently of any particular tradition or personal perspective. Toprovide universally accessible knowledge, reason likewise must be autonomous,free from whatever particulars revelation or church authorities might require.Objectivity and autonomy were to be two sides of the same coin. John Locke,himself professedly Christian, allowed that revelation adds particular beliefsto what reason alone affirms, but added that reason seeks evidence for whatrevelation declares. Belief should not regulate reason but rather be regulatedby it. So reason should demonstrate the existence of God, and belief in divinerevelation and other Christian teachings must be proportioned to the evidence.This is a moral duty, he charged, and to act otherwise is to transgress againstthe light of reason. [1]

This dualism of reason and revelation, each in its own sphere yet with onesubordinated to the other, proved unstable. While some argued that belief inGod and miracles and in revelation itself was rationally justified, not sodeists like Thomas Paine, who settled for reason alone, nor"enthusiasts" who opted without reason for immediate and privaterevelations. Similar examples of anti-supernatural rationalism andanti-intellectual fideism occur perennially, antithetical as they are toChristian thinking. But David Hume added another twist. He took human ideas andbeliefs to be purely subjective states of mind, devoid of logical evidence forany corresponding reality. His famous essay on miracles concludes that it wouldtake a miracle to make him believe a miracle had actually occurred, becausemoral and religious beliefs are evoked by the passions rather than theintellect. He was skeptical about rational evidence even being possible.[2]Positivists like John Stuart Mill went further, declaring that a word likematter, for instance, refers only to the permanent possibility of ourexperiencing sensations. Reality itself remains unknown.

This was all part of the Enlightenment milieu within which Christian collegesin America developed. Many of them found help in Scottish common-sensephilosophy, which overcame Hume's skepticism by rejecting his subjectivisttheory of ideas in favor of a more direct awareness of reality. Many of ourbeliefs, they argued, are self-evident, arising naturally because of ourGod-given rational capacities. So Christian educators adopted the realism inBaconian science, introduced scientific education, applied inductive methods totheology and moral philosophy, and developed an apologetic that seemed tosatisfy Locke's evidentialist demands. In effect they tried weddingEnlightenment reason to biblical revelation.[3]

But not all Christian scholarsacknowledged that union. In nineteenth-century England, John Henry Newmanfought the theological erosion that accompanied Enlightenment attitudes towardrevelation and authority, both in the increasingly liberal theology of his dayand in the university curriculum. He also fought the utilitarian view ofeducation then emerging from the rise of modern science and the industrialrevolution which followed, arguing instead for carefully mentored liberallearning that develops the intellect and guides student formation. His workinspires educators to this day,[4] and in this postmodern setting hisunderlying view of reason and revelation receives increasing attention. We arenot ruled by reason alone, he points out, but by ideals rooted in our innernature. Faith is not blind, but neither is it simply an intellectual step basedon objective evidence, as Locke supposed, because evidence is colored by tacitassumptions. Rather faith embraces the revealed reality of One who satisfiesour deepest needs and aspirations: As Augustine put it, our hearts are restlessuntil they rest in Him.[5]

Similarily in nineteenth-centuryHolland, Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper realized that the autonomy ofreason lay at the root of their increasingly secularized society. In his famous1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton, he spoke of Christianity as a worldview inconflict with the current naturalism and its implications in religion andpolitics, science, and art. These are all made possible by the law-structureGod created, and they are all affected by sin, and he showed at length how thisis so in science. Reason is never entirely free from such influence, despitethe naturalist's assumption. But if worldview assumptions in fact lie at thefoundation of the disciplines, then reason and revelation together will shapeChristian learning.[6]

But it was Immanuel Kant's revolutionary thinking that brought subjectivity inhuman reason most to the fore, introducing a new phase in the debate. Aware ofScottish realism but not convinced of its validity, Kant contended that thespace-time forms and causal categories of modern science are not rootedobjectively in nature but subjectively in the human knower. What they structureis not reality itself but our perception and understanding of it, subjectivephenomena only. Consequently the traditional proofs from the natural order forthe existence of God fail.[7] Yet with his pietist background, Kant foundbelief in God a necessary postulate of the moral life, while in ethics theideal of a universal rationality remained possible because an inner sense ofduty is common to all. His Religion within the Limits of Reason Aloneaccordingly reduced Christian theology to a universal ethic by reconstruing theparticularities of revealed religion and rejecting the uniqueness of revealed truth.But nineteenth-century neo-Kantians relativized all subjectivity, uncoveringpsychological and historical variables that anticipated depth psychology andthe sociology of knowledge. Reason, it seemed, including theology, is neitherobjective nor autonomous, but relative to the subjective knower. Innineteenth-century liberal theology, revelation itself became subjective, notthe authoritative self-disclosure of a personal and transcendent deity, but ahistorically relative religious consciousness unfolding within the humanspirit.

Plainly, postmodernism's rejectionof Enlightenment reason is by no means novel. The autonomous knower was clearlya fiction, as both Newman and Kuyper saw. Obviously we need objectivity in ourthinking, lest unrelated personal concerns skew our conclusions. But we knowonly in part, our vision is limited, our thinking twisted, our knowledgefragmented. We look through a glass darkly from different personal and culturalperspectives. We see from a particular time and place in history. We holdtreasures of wisdom and knowledge in earthen vessels, even the truth God hasrevealed. To this extent, postmodernism is nothing new. We are not autonomousknowers with absolutely objective knowledge. Believing so would border onhubris, for we think as finite and fallen beings do, not as God.

A more modest approach known as reformed epistemology, which gives both reasonand revelation their due, has been developed at length by Alvin Plantinga.[8]It is fully rational, he contends, to hold beliefs that arise naturallyprovided our minds are functioning properly in an appropriate context. Suchbeliefs are properly basic, and from them further beliefs may be logicallyderived. He has in mind Calvin's sensus divinitatis, the awareness of God thatarises spontaneously because He created us in His image with that intent, andsimilar beliefs about nature such as Scottish realism affirmed. Provided ourGod-given belief-forming mechanisms function as God intended, and are not preventedby sickness or sin, what more could reason require? Noting similar views ofreason's purposiveness in Thomas Aquinas, he then extends this Aquinas-Calvinmodel to believing, by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, that Scripture isGod's revelation, so that specific beliefs it declares are also rationallywarranted. Plantinga accordingly concludes that no positive apologetic forChristianity is rationally required, but only a negative one that responds towould-be defeaters of its claims. The underlying obstacle to belief, however,is not objective reasoning per se but the sin that prevents its properfunction. The noetic effects of sin make it the crucial subjectiveepistemological factor.[9]

But of course some postmodernists gobeyond simply recognizing the subjectivity in human perspectives (I call this"epistemological subjectivity") to talking, like Nietzsche, as iftruth itself is subjective (i.e. "metaphysical subjectivity"), asocial construct rather than objective fact. That is surely a non sequitur. Itmay well be true that people devised new-age religions for themselves, yet somereligious pluralists treat all religious beliefs as human constructs ratherthan competing truth claims about God. And deconstruction offers multiplemeanings implicit in a text, relativizing the truth its author intended.Richard Rorty is explicit: The quest for objective truth is a carryover fromwhen people believed in God, so he abandons it for more pragmatic ways tosocial solidarity.[10]

Modernity's quest for absolute knowledge of reality is accordingly replaced bya realist-antirealist debate that ranges from science into ethics and theology.Yet human reason, although not the absolute knower, still has connections toreality. The basic law of logic, for instance, that A and non-A cannot both betrue at the same time and in the same respect, is also a law of being. Thischallenges self-contradictory interpretations, so that an author's explicitlanguage precludes some readings of his text, and scientific theories arefalsifiable by experimental results. In the so-called human sciences, wheresubjectivity is more a factor, Roy Bhaskar still finds objective controls thatmake realism possible.[11] A former research scientist and now a theologian,Alister McGrath has adopted Bhaskar's critical realism and extends it toChristian theology.[12] Critical realism argues that we know, howeverperspectivally, what is objectively true. Epistemological subjectivity by nomeans implies its metaphysical counterpart.

Postmodern pluralists who talk as ifthere were conflicting truths about the same object make the same sort ofmistake as the late medieval Averroists with their theory of twofold truth. TheMuslim philosopher Averroes and his Christian followers claimed that one andthe same proposition could be true in philosophy and false in theology, andvice versa, leaving the impression that although reason and revelationcontradict each other, both are true. What they really intended was that sinceAristotle could not be mistaken (e.g., that at death our souls merge into oneworld soul), then theological language about individuals in a future life mustbe symbolic and not mean literally what it says. But Aquinas showed that thisreading of Aristotle was mistaken, while revelation is explicit. Multipleperspectives indeed, one false and the other true, but not differenttruths![13] So it is with postmodern pluralism. What it really offers ismultiple perspectives, not multiple truths, for mutually contradictoryperspectives simply cannot all be true. Some may be partly true and some partlyfalse, or their truth-value undecided, but to call them "my truth"and "yours"-when all that it refers to is personal preference andperspective-does violence both to language and to logic.

The Ultimate Locus for Truth
Richard Rorty may not be far wrong about objective truth being a carryover fromwhen people believed in God, for without some locus for truth beyond humanperspective, how could the term have objective reference? The appeal toobjective controls is by no means new. Augustine pointed out that the truth ofa matter (in mathematics for instance) is not something we control, for itstands in judgment on all our opinions.[14] The theories we create are subjectto correction by a truth that transcends us all, an archetypal truth thatorders the entire creation. That ultimate locus for truth is in God, Hisperfect knowledge of everything He made, and so the particular truths ourlearning uncovers are but ektypes of that. Augustine worked this out for allseven liberal arts of his day,[15] and urged their importance for understandingthe Scriptures.[16] All truth is ultimately God's truth, whether we know it byreason or revelation; in either case the Logos of creation makes knowledgepossible, and the two cannot be separated. Faith is understanding's step, andunderstanding is faith's reward.

These convictions inspired the medieval monastery schools to a contemplativekind of learning that studied liberal arts, bringing the literal and symbolicmeanings it taught to the study of both Scripture and the natural order.Tracing the Creator's goodness and power made the whole hierarchy of being aroad to be travelled to God.[17] Augustine's convictions about reason andrevelation and truth also enabled Aquinas and scholastic universities to bringdisciplined reason to theology, creating a reservoir of Christian thought fromwhich we still draw. This is also the tradition from which Newman and Kuyperand many others have learned. It combines an epistemological modesty thatEnlightenment reason lacked with an epistemological confidence in God-givenreason. Christian scholars today would do well to follow premodern rather thanpostmodern or modern views of reason and revelation.


[1] John Locke, Essay ConcerningHuman Understanding (1690), book IV, ch. 16ff.

[2] David Hume, An InquiryConcerning Human Understanding (1748).

[3] See T. D. Bozeman,Protestants in an Age of Science (Chapel Hill: University of North CarolinaPress, 1977); Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Enlightenment and theAmericanCollegeIdeal, (New York: Teachers College Press, ColumbiaUniversity, 1971).

[4] John Henry Newman, The Ideaof a University (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

[5] John Henry Newman, An Essayin Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Longmans, Green, 1930). Cp. WilliamJ. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UniversityPress, 1995).

[6] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures onCalvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1943).

[7] This was the argument of Kant'sfamous Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

[8] See Alvin Plantinga, WarrantedChristian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[9] Ellen Charry argues thatmodernity created a new understanding of truth that divorced knowledge fromgoodness and wisdom. (Theology Today, 59.2).

[10] Richard Rorty, Contingency,Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[11] Roy Bhaskar, ReclaimingReality (London: Verso, 1989).

[12] Alister McGrath, AScientific Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

[13] See Ralph McInerny, Aquinasagainst the Averroists (West Lafayette, IN, Purdue University Press, 1993).

[14] Augustine, Saint, On Free Will,bk.2.

[15] See Augustine's De Ordine,transl. Divine Providenceand the Problem of Evil.

[16] On Christian Doctrine.

[17] See Bonaventure, The Mind'sRoad to God (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1988). Also Jean Leclercq, TheLove of Learning and the Desire for God (New York: Fordham UniversityPress, 1961).


 By: Arthur F. Holmes