Critical Race Theory & The Bible: Reversing the Hermeneutical Lens

Imagine for a moment you are a scholar with a deep interest in the early Church Fathers and the Scholastic theologians. More specifically you are deeply engaged with the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the two most influential thinkers in the Church’s history (with Martin Luther a close third), and perhaps the two most influential, non-Greek philosophers in history period (with Hume, Kant and Marx a close third, fourth, and fifth). Miraculously you receive the opportunity to travel back in time, or perhaps to meet in some timeless dimension, and speak to both Augustine and Thomas personally. Obviously, you have one burning question on your mind for both men: “what is it like to wear robes your whole life?”

You flub that first question, obviously due to the anxiety of being in the midst of such giants, or maybe because you are still freaked out about being in a timeless dimension, but your follow-up question is one that has troubled scholars and laymen, pastors and their congregations for centuries: how should we interpret the Bible? Or, perhaps you ask it this way: how do we know that the Bible is divinely inspired and the infallible Word of God? What answer do you think these two geniuses might give?

I am no scholar of the early Church Fathers, nor expert in the medieval theologians, however, I think I can assert with some confidence what both Auggie and Tom would not say. They would not say this: [for Augustine] “Well, first I have to know everything that Plato said, and really understand Plato and his disciples, and then I can go read the sacred Scriptures and figure out what they mean.” Or, for Aquinas, this: “You know, first I have to read everything Aristotle ever wrote; and understand everything that great man said; and agonize over his theories; and then, and only then, can I go read the Bible and decide what is true and what is not, or what is inspired and what is merely the product of human hands.”

Not for a moment would either have said such a thing. Of course, I also do not believe either would have answered in English, but whatever the Latin equivalent of each statement is, the propositional content would still be roughly the same: “we do not study Plato or Aristotle to know that the Bible is true.” Rather, “We know the Bible is true, and then we see what Plato or Aristotle have to say about the world that might also be true, and how it might comport with the Bible.”

In other words, neither Augustine or Aquinas, these “Doctors” as the Catholic church would call them (and Calvin too!), would have ever suggested that in order to properly understand the Special Revelation that is the divinely inspired canon of scripture, one had to first understand the best reflections of a pagan philosopher from general revelation. And most certainly one does not need Plato or Aristotle to know what in the Bible is true, or to know whether the Bible in its entirety is inspired and infallible. Such nonsense and outright blasphemy would never have entered the mind of these great saints. What was clear and indubitable to both was that the Bible was the very content of divine Truth, the Word of God to man, and that the pagan philosopher was but a medium through which that Truth might be expressed in a somewhat more relevant way to a particular culture, in a particular place, in a particular time. Plato and Aristotle were servants to Solomon and Paul, not masters.

However, as depressing as it might be to actual experts in the Church Fathers or the Medieval Scholastics, we no longer live in the culture or time of Augustine or Aquinas. Unlike them, we are all children of Modernity, and Modernity has drastically changed the way we look not only at the Bible, but at philosophy, and human culture itself. Modernity, and its prolonged extension, Post-Modernity, have rearranged our approach not just to the Bible, but to the interpretation of any book or text (even scientific ones).

Philosophical Shifts and Their Hermeneutical Effects

Since the 18th century, and especially due to those three other aforementioned thinkers: Hume, Kant and Marx, ideas about Special Revelation among many in the Church, and in many churches, has been exactly the opposite from those of the Church Fathers or the Scholastics. Instead of supposing biblical Truth as prior to purely rational reflection on man and God, modern theologians have chosen to take the best (or perhaps in Marx’s case just the most influential) philosophical thinking of the day and use it as the interpretive tool by which to gauge the true or false, the inspired or merely human, parts of the Bible. Unlike Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum, this is instead intelligence seeking faith, a methodological approach that does a great bit of picking and choosing along the way.

The prodigious Roman Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, explains this modern approach in light of the modern, or empirical view, of culture:

“The classicist notion of culture was normative: at least de jure there was but one culture that was both universal and permanent; to its norms and ideals might aspire the uncultured, whether they were the young or the people or the natives or the barbarians. Besides the classicist, there also is the empirical notion of culture. It is the set of meanings and values that informs a way of life. It may remain unchanged for ages. It may be in process of slow development or rapid dissolution.”

Bernard Lonergan. “Method in Theology.”

According to Lonergan, then, since the birth of the Modern, culture has been viewed in the empiricist mode, which means, even if a given culture might sustain its values and meanings over extended time, it is nevertheless devoid of anything universal or enduring. Moreover, there is no Culture, there are only cultures. As such, on this view of culture, methodology itself becomes primary for the theologian, “When culture is conceived empirically, theology is known to be an ongoing process, and then one writes on its method.”1Lonergan, Method in Theology. He further explains what this modern method might look like, “A contemporary method would conceive those tasks in the context of modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy, of historicity, collective practicality and coresponsibility.” However, this is very different from how theology is done on the classicist view of culture, “When the classicist notion of culture prevails, theology is conceived as a permanent achievement, and then one discourses on its nature.”

Augustine and Aquinas, unlike theologians today, were working under the classicist understanding of culture. Thus, while Augustine clearly used Platonic and neo-Platonic modes of thought and metaphysical categories to better articulate the truths already found in the inspired Scriptures, and where Aquinas, after the rediscovery of the Philosopher in the 12th century, appropriated Aristotle in order to expound Gospel truths in a more robust and synthetic manner, the trend in the last two hundred years of the Church’s history2 actually one can find this trend much earlier in the sense of intellectual history, perhaps as far back as Spinoza in the mid 17th century. However, it was in the 19th century that Enlightenment critiques really began to sink into the life of the Church, especially in the German and English speaking worlds, has been to turn this methodology on its head— to reverse the heremeneutical lens. On the empiricist view of culture, the one ushered in by the ruminations of thinkers like Hume, Kant3 This is not to say that Kant was an empiricist, but that his views served to facilitate this empiricist understanding of culture, and Marx, it is now the engagement with “modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy…” that sets the stage for biblical interpretation.

For several generations now this reversal of the hermeneutical lens has deeply impacted the Protestant churches especially, although Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have not been left unscathed. The practice of taking some current and influential, yet purely immanent theory, about the world as the paradigm through which we understand the Bible, as opposed to taking the Bible and seeing how we might press into service the philosophical theory, has been vogue for quite some time. In fact, so vogue that it is, as Lonergan hints, the default methodology for knowing what is true or false, what is right or wrong within the Christian tradition. We might call this en vogue approach something like “General Revelation Prioritism,” since it makes the Bible just one part of a larger revelatory schema, a schema that itself is in the process of constant change.

Practitioners of “GRP” might appropriately be called “General Revelationists” in that they assume one must adopt extra-biblical thought patterns or paradigms by which to adjudicate the contents of the Bible, rather than the other way round, analyzing the thought patterns and paradigms of the Bible to adjudicate over extra-biblical ones. Again, this approach is not for the purpose of contextualization or elaboration of the scriptural data, an unavoidable act for any pastor or theologian, but for the purpose of actually determining the truth value of biblical propositions4 Any act of interpretation would obviously include things like historical context, grammatical analysis, and, of course, literary genre. However, it is not my purpose here to discuss the analytical tools needed for a proper, original-intent hermeneutical approach. For more on proper contextual interpretation see Michael S. Heiser’s excellent podcast, The Naked Bible at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0Ud2F59K45tT5dujVD0Qzw., or for distinguishing especially inspired and divine parts of the Bible from its less inspired and historically contingent human parts.

There is also no real sense that this trend of hermeneutical reversal will revert back to a previous paradigm, like the one of the Middle Ages, barring some massive global crisis, or maybe some very public manifestations of supernatural (metaphysical) realities. Manifestations of such entities which might shock us out of our empirical malaise, reconfirming the validity of the metaphysics that so belabored the ancient and medieval mind, and reaffirming the classicist view of culture. Thus, it becomes incumbent upon the historically and metaphysically minded Christian to know when certain philosophical or social theories5all social theories are philosophical, even if not all philosophical theories are social have not only been adopted by churches in their approach to Scripture, but also when they have been elevated above the scriptures in such a way as to make them, the theories, the norm by which the data of Scripture must be evaluated. Further, each generation of Christians must be in the position to show why a particular philosophical theory falls short, and in doing so, show why it should not be utilized as an interpretive lens for the special revelation of the sacred texts.

Today, the paradigm through which many are attempting to read the pages of Scripture in order to see which parts remain valid, and which can be relegated to a trash bin of historically situated religious aphorisms, is Critical Race Theory– a theory that itself is born out of another all-encompassing system, namely, Marxism.

What Makes A Universal Hermeneutic Universal?

What is a universal hermeneutic? A universal hermeneutic is basically a worldview, an explanatory framework of the world that acts as a totalizing system of thought, a filter through which all human phenomena are interpreted, and into which we are meant to try and fit not just public history, but also our own personal narratives, each of which is itself one member of the total set of historical, human phenomena. Traditional religions like Christianity or Islam, for example, are totalizing systems in that they seek to explain the most fundamental aspects of human existence through a single, interpretive lens (or narrative). Those fundamental aspects are: origins, meaning or purpose, morality, authority, and eschatology or final destination.

For Christians, passages like Genesis 1 & 3; Romans 1:18-32, or John 1 and Rev 21 make such totalizing claims with regard to origins, meaning, purpose, etc., and all in reference to God and Christ. The Apostle Paul sums up the Christian way of looking at reality when he writes, “He is before all things, and in Him [Christ] all things hold together” (Gal 1:17), or when he proclaims “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:9). However, it is not just traditional religions that perform this role of universal interpretive lens. Philosopher C. Stephan Evans talks about a “global” hermeneutic when referencing the work of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud:

“I call these perspectives global because they are applied to human persons as a whole and they are used to understand huge swathes of human action. I call them hermeneutical because I think their epistemic force is not captured by standard models of empirical science which emphasize prediction and verification or falsification. Such global perspectives differ from scientific hypotheses in that they rarely, if ever, can be confirmed or refuted by specific events.”

“The Revolt Against Accountability to God: A Global Hermeneutic Perspective on Contemporary Moral Philosophy” in Philosophia Christi Vol. 21, No. 2 2019.

Evans argues here that certain systems of thought act as global hermeneutics when they sidestep any critique of the natural sciences regarding their validity, i.e. their correspondence with reality, yet all the while making enormous claims about global humanity and the human condition. In fact, on these systems, the scientific project itself is under the microscope, and therefore cannot make any claims against the hermeneutic.

Agreeing with Evans, I choose however to use the term “universal” instead of global only because universal better encompasses the full sweep of history, i.e. to all trans-historical phenomena that either appear to occur in a stage-like process, or that explain why all people and cultures, regardless of their place in history, acted in certain ways. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud all constructed systems that attempted to provide this kind of trans-temporal, universal explanation. Darwin would be a fourth to add to that list. However, for the purposes of this article, we need to focus on Karl Marx.6 Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution was very compatible with Marx’s economic theories and his dialetic of materialism.

Focusing on Marx then, whose theory will be more relevant to our understanding of contemporary Critical Race Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the following point about Marxist claims:

Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity

Here we must pause. For how can Marx claim the kind of explanatory scope and power for his system that he seems to want to claim? On Christianity or Islam, there is at least a transcendental claim, namely, that God has revealed things to man about man that go beyond man’s own speculation. But, this is clearly not the case for Marx (nor for his counterparts Freud and Nietzsche), whose entire theory is grounded in materialism. How does the atheistic Marxist justify the self-referential claim that Marxism acts as a universal, explanatory system for all of human history? After all, isn’t the Marxist system itself, like all other philosophical systems, embedded in that same history? Isn’t Marxism also a product of human minds operating in a particular place in time, and, therefore, open to eventual irrelevancy and falsification like the other philosophical systems that came before it? How can Marxism claim to be the overarching interpretation of its own history, where other theories were not?

It is often said of Marx that he “flipped Hegel on his [Hegel’s] head.” What that means is that Marx claimed that in his own thinking philosophy itself had become conscious or aware of its own foundations. In other words the history of philosophy is not the history of rational human agents thinking great abstract thoughts, thoughts that then bear down on and shape concrete material and social realities; rather, the history of philosophy is the history of concrete realities shaping human thinkers who, for reasons intimately connected to their material and social conditions, then generate great, or apparently great, abstract thoughts. Progress (or teleology), according to Marx, is not in the great synthesizing of abstract ideas, rather, pace Hegel, it occurs in the dialectic of materialism, the transformation of previously conflicting states of material conditions into new states of material conditions. Since man just is an amalgam of material, a new set of material conditions means a new man. Thus, if material conditions are understood, and then altered, so can man be liberated from that which has alienated him from himself. First he can be liberated from toilsome labor, itself a curse of both Capitalist and of Canon (Genesis 3:17-19), and second he can finally be freed from an abstract, yet non-existent view of his own self, from a human “essence” or nature, as defined by religion or abstract philosophy (i.e. Plato). For Marx and his followers there are not “fixed natures” that endure over time, there is only the perpetual dialectic.

It is in this sense that Marx believes he has truly discovered, or created, something new. MacIntyre puts it this way,

“It is this conception of truth that enables Marx both to affirm a historical relativism concerning all philosophies and also to deny that his own philosophy is merely a product of the time, since it is in Marx’s own thought that philosophy has for the first time become conscious of its historical basis in seeking to transform that basis and has therefore passed beyond the limitations of earlier philosophy. ”

Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.”

For Marx then, there can be no changing of “the human heart” until there is a changing of the material conditions surrounding the human body (and mind, whatever that might be). Change the material and social conditions, change the man who lives in them. This is the crux of Marxist thought, and the key to Marxism acting not only as a universal hermeneutic, but also as a direct competitor with classical Christianity, which clearly asserts the very opposite notion: change the human heart, change the material and social conditions in which men live. But, if we have two worldviews competing for the role of universal hermeneutic, then the inevitable question emerges: which one, if any, does the work of interpreting the other?

While classical Marxism has by and large been rejected by contemporary, Western culture, that does not mean that versions of it, i.e. the intellectual great-grandchildren of Marx, have been rejected. One version of Marxist thought that blossomed in the mid 20th-century is Critical Theory, and one version of Critical Theory that is taking on the properties of a universal hermeneutic in the English-speaking world today is Critical Race Theory.

Does Critical Race Theory Operate As A Universal Hermeneutic?

That Critical Race Theory has the potential to act as a universal heremeneutic or totalizing, explanatory system seems at face value plausible. First, recall the four or five domains of human existence any universal hermeneutical system must try and answer: human origins, meaning and purpose, morality, authority, and end state or eschatology.

With the exception of a clear origins story (although there is some evidence for emerging popular-level versions), CRT seems to offer an overarching meaning and purpose for human existence: the human story is one fundamentally about oppression and liberation, of oppressive groups, or hegemonic powers, and their victims. On CRT race becomes the central property determining where one stands, or has historically stood, within the oppressor-oppressed dynamic. All human existence, all meaning, relates to this very Marxist, and even very Darwinian, understanding of life. The dynamic itself is also one that is not foreign to the biblical worldview, a dynamic that C.S. Lewis creatively portrays in The Screwtape Letters, when he has Screwtape explain Hell’s philosophy:

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’.”

C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.”

The goal on CRT then is the liberation from these oppressive, racist (or sexist) societal structures. Liberation is the key concept in any Critical Theory, and the psychology of always being in the place of having to be liberated from some structure of oppression, or oppressor group, can provide the individual, or community, with an enduring, sacred struggle worth fighting. This struggle, or the being actively involved in it, can also create the framework for certain moral values and obligations to emerge.

With regard to morality, CRT also addresses the age-old question of “How now shall we live?” Moral goodness on a CRT view can have two aspects: first, an intellectual aspect of awakening, i.e. “wokeness,” to one’s own role in the oppressor class–to one’s identity as oppressor. This personal, or corporate, enlightenment can then engender acts of piety, especially of propitiation and satisfaction, in the form of publicly declaring one’s newfound sense of guilt and shame, followed by various symbolic acts of repentance and sacrifice. Whether or not those acts of repentance or sacrifice will actually be accepted, however, is questionable at best. This is something the mayor of Minneapolis appeared to learn first-hand quite recently. Thus, it is yet to be seen whether or not there is room for atonement on CRT, or just propitiation without real satisfaction and ultimate reconciliation.

This second aspect of CRT morality, public moral action, could also be seen as having two facets: first, the willingness to abdicate any advantage (usually material, but not always) in life one may have attained to those in the historically oppressed class or classes, and second, becoming politically active so as to advance, or enforce, the abdication of advantage by those who resist the voluntary handing over of goods to those perceived as historically disadvantaged. This can provide many people who are otherwise immoral (according to any transcendent standard) with a public means to be moral, a means through which to demonstrate their newfound moral superiority over others who can now be labelled as immoral, i.e. the “non-woke.”

As such, there is both an element of intellectual enlightenment here akin to Gnosticism, as ignorant oppressors, for now White people, become aware of themselves as indelibly corrupt vìs-a-vìs their darker skinned counterparts, and an element of concrete, social action in light of this pseudo-spiritual illumination. This illumination, of course, is provided to them by those of the oppressed class (at least in theory), who preside over secret knowledge in virtue of their being oppressed.7 For more on this idea of “Ethnic Gnosticism” see Voddie Bauckham: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip3nV6S_fYU.

Here again we see the Marxist ideology that underlies CRT, as CRT is able to both claim a status that places it beyond the ken of accepted, epistemic standards of justification, while also making concrete, political action its fundamental moral activity. MacIntyre sums up this dual Marxist impulse of the interconnectedness of special knowledge and political activism, “It is only those who are engaged in changing the world who can hope to see the world rightly.”8 Marxism and Christianity, Applebooks, 63. Indeed on CRT, only CRT activists have the proper standpoint from which to gauge reality.

That also opens up another domain of CRT as it potentially acts as a totalizing system: the role of authority. For the philosophical critical theorists, the goal of social theory was, of course, the perfection of democracy. A “real democracy”9 see James Bohman article “Critical Theory” in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 2: https://nypost.com/2020/06/07/oh-grow-up-mayor-frey-devine/ would entail human beings being in control of the social factors that affect and shape them. Again, as per Marx, if human agents are nothing more than the product of matter and social constructs, then to be able to properly understand and control material and social conditions just is the means by which we can become new kinds of creatures. Ultimately, the “real democracy” the early critical theorists were arguing for was one where the human community itself could effectively play the role of God. Authority is no longer reified and objectified into a metaphysical deity, a benevolent “sky-daddy” who will fulfill our deepest desires. Rather, we must, through the rational analysis of those things that we as human beings produce, figure out what the perfect set of conditions will be, so that we can live in a new creation of our own making.

If this is the case though, then what appears as an inescapable feature of this immanently human attempt to recreate ourselves, is the need for something like a priestly caste, or at least a teaching magisterium that guides the ignorant among us into this undiscovered territory, and that mediates the untapped potential in us all to usher in the new society. Consequently, we see evidence of an emerging authoritative group in CRT, namely, a sort of “star chamber” of gurus who have coined the various terms that impregnate the view with its symbolic content (“white fragility,” “white guilt,” “intersectionality”), and whose work has lead to pragmatic initiatives like diversity training in major corporations, the construction of diversity task forces at universities, or movements like Black Lives Matter. Priests and priestesses like Robin DiAngelo, Peggy MacIntosh, or Ibrahim Kendi come quickly to mind as leaders of the new movement.

Several thinkers like Andrew Sullivan, themselves far from being fundamentalist Christians, have pointed out how CRT, or here core tenets of it, operate as a religion, especially on university campuses where the aforementioned authorial figures are most impactful. Moreover, that other fervent non-Theists like James Lindsay or Peter Boghossian, have become prophetic voices against the threat of CRT, and have even allied with conservative Christians to fight CRT, provides additional evidence that CRT has moved into the realm of operating as a religious worldview, something that would make any classical atheist from Russell to Dawkins rightly shake in their scientistic boots. Even the realm of mathematics does not seem off limits to the interpretive power of CRT, as evidenced by a recent statement of the Mathematical Association of America.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not CRT provides any answer to the question of eschatology, or end state. That it can, like on Marxism, and perhaps even Christianity to a lesser degree, seems obscure. On CRT we are told what the societal problem is, we are told that there is means to solving it, and we are introduced to a group of authoritative figures who can guide us through it, but there is little to no sense of what that solution will look like once we arrive. Like Marxism, the undiscovered country remains shrouded in perpetual mystery until you actually get there to tread the supposedly new ground. MacIntyre states it this way, “but just as Christianity has been much better at describing the state of fallen men than the glories of redeemed men, so Marxism is better at explaining what alienation consists of than in describing the future nature of unalienated men.”10Excerpt From: Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.” It is worth noting that MacIntyre wrote this prior to his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Pace MacIntyre, Christianity does give us some vision of the end, even if a highly symbolic one as found in the book of Revelation. However, per MacIntyre, Marxism, and by inference Critical Race Theory, clearly lack anything like an ultimate telos, a serious description of what “liberated man” is supposed to look like once his or her earthly liberation has occurred. Of course, for any true Christian the idea of final liberation, and the final happiness that accompanies final liberation, apart from a real unity with our Creator is already at the core empty. For the Christian man, any notion of a freedom devoid of a real Christ, and a real relationship with a personal God, is just the foundational sin all over again– it is the originating original sin.

In sum, there is good reason to think that CRT does attempt to fill the role of a totalizing system or worldview that acts as a religion in its answering, regardless of how poorly, the questions of, to a lesser degree, human origins and end state; and, to a higher degree, questions of existential meaning and purpose, and moral values and duties. If this is the case, then CRT may indeed become for some, or perhaps for many, a universal hermeneutic by which all other things are evaluated and put into their right place, to include the biblical revelation.

However, the question now emerges of whether or not there is evidence of this being done within the confines of the Church itself? Has there been a capitulation to CRT in the domain of Christian education, or within the walls (or Zoom services) of evangelical churches?

Evidence that CRT is Acting As A New Heremeneutic in the Church

The natural sciences may be the last domain of culture holding out against the new hermeneutic of Critical Race Theory, although as alluded to above, that fortification also shows signs of crumbling. With regard to the Church however, CRT already seems to be for many Protestant churches and seminaries, to include some areas of Catholicism, the go-to paradigm for biblical interpretation, theological construction, and pastoral application. A quick look at something like the missions statement of a Wake Forest School of Divinity, or this recent post by Union Theological Seminary should suffice to justify this claim. However, the orientation of institutes like these should not surprise us, since they have long since accepted the Enlightenment critique of metaphysical knowledge, and the post-modern critique of epistemology.

Not only does the Bible become a merely human book for primarily critical analysis at institutes like these, but also in their embrace of current social theories and post-modern epistemology11 Post-modernism cannot rightly be called an epistemology, since it rejects any and all notions of the entire epistemic endeavor to gain or have knowledge. Post-modernism is essentially an anti-epistemological school of thought in that it rejects any need for beliefs or truth claims to be rationally justified. As such it works on an entirely different Theory of Truth than classical Correspondence Theory., the Bible can become a means to various worldly ends. Thus, the Scriptures no longer present us with a means for “how to go to heaven” but become a user’s manual for how to create heaven on earth. But, even then, the Bible is at best only a marginally useful tool, one that can be readily supplemented, or must be supplemented, by other “sacred” texts like the Koran, the Upanishads, or again, by Marxist doctrines.

What may be new however for these classically liberal institutions is not their already long-standing methodology of deconstructing a historical Gospel proclamation in order to reconstruct a social gospel correlated to the philosophical theories of the day and the existential needs of culture, but the raw material from which they can draw in order to engage in biblical interpretation and theological reconstruction. The Social Gospel of the 1920’s and 30’s was one thing, one theory located in its own time and it its own culture. The Social Justice Gospel is a new thing. After all, institutes that have divested themselves of the ontology of Scripture, i.e. its inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and sufficiency, to include any robust version of natural law, will always have a new gospel to preach as speculation on general revelation shifts and moves with the flow of time. Again, for the General Revelationist, the Bible will tell us the truth only when we have first discerned from current social theory what in the Bible is even worthy of consideration. Only then can its wisdom shine, and that only as long as the current social theory maintains its influence.

But, there is even more evidence that CRT is now taking over in places that once would have been considered bastions of historical, orthodox Evangelicalism. Seminaries that have adamantly held on to the classicist view of culture, and the fixity of human nature, now seem susceptible to the influence of CRT. For example, a recent petition signed by over 4000 former students of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) located in La Mirada, CA provides additional support for the claim that even more traditional Protestant schools are drifting from their original, missionary intent, and potentially moving toward a new, universal hermeneutic. Recent chapels held at the same institution seem to suggest that it is through the lens of CRT that we must learn to re-read the text of Scripture, even the Beatitudes themselves.

While it is not clear whether the hermeneutical lens will be reversed at places like Biola, or other evangelical schools, some of which have been explicit in their rejection of CRT, that CRT has the potential to become the accepted mode of biblical interpretation is, I think, quite plausible. Unfortunately, this would not the first time the church has fallen for the speculations of men over the Word of God.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas, indeed, pray for us!

*For more detailed information on Critical Race Theory, see Neil Shenvi-Apologetics here. For an atheist perspective on the dangers of Critical Race Theory, see James Lindsay’s excellent interview with Al Mohler here.

Our New Redemption: Critical Theory as Theology Without “Theos”

There is one, almost singular, theological and philosophical problem that has haunted Western civilization since the rise of modern skepticism in the mid-17th century, i.e. since Descarte. It is a theoretical problem that has launched a thousand ships of philosophical speculation, all floundering on the open seas of human inquiry, and subject to the acidity of the rational mind reasoning about itself.1 Kristen Irwin expounds on the view of the early, modern philosopher Pierre Bayle, who questioned the reliability of reason, “The sense in which Bayle is a skeptic is not entirely straightforward, but what is clear is that Bayle exhibits a profound suspicion of reason’s ability to deliver certain knowledge. In Bayle’s view, reason seems to be useful in enabling us to draw conclusions about the world, but it runs into so many contradictions and yields so many paradoxes that it ultimately undermines itself, and thus cannot be trusted. Thus, Bayle’s skepticism is, minimally, skepticism about the reliability of reason.” in https://iep.utm.edu/bayle/#:~:text=The%20sense%20in%20which%20Bayle%20is%20a%20skeptic,ultimately%20undermines%20itself%2C%20and%20thus%20cannot%20be%20trusted. But, it is a theoretical problem that plays out in the everyday life of every man, woman and child; a theoretical problem that cannot be easily ignored (as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems perhaps can be). That problem is how to think, speak, and act morally apart from any metaphysical grounds for moral values or moral duties. This problem, at first considered soluble if baptized in the waters of pure reason, a reason unadulterated by claims of divine revelation and church authority, quickly became an unassailable fortress against which no weapon formed by human heads seemed able to prevail. The Enlightenment, many now claim, failed to illuminate the issue of human morality, making it only more obscure to us than it was under the transcendent light of its predecessor, the Queen of the Sciences: Theology.

The existential void the Enlightenment left behind in western culture, in virtue of seeking after a universally applicable moral system grounded in reason alone, provided the seedbed for the emergence of a new kind of philosophy: Critical Theory. Early Critical Theory2 I am thinking here of Marx and The Frankfurt School in particular, along with all of its subsequent, social scientific subsets, e.g. Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, etc., sought, and still seeks, to construct morality apart from anything ontological other than the human subject herself, and apart from any phenomena other than that of human experience. Critical theory as such is a purely empirical theory, but one where the human reasoner is himself part of the empirical data subject to social and historical analysis.

Where the enlightened modernists failed to successfully replace religious morality with Reason (capital “R”), the post-modern critical theorist now took up the mantel of moral progress. This new, critical philosophy consisted of Marx and his successors on the one hand, e.g. the cultural Marxists: Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse, et al., and Nietzsche on the other (few have been willing to embrace Nietzsche as an ethicist worth emulating, but perhaps someone like Ayn Rand might fit the bill). Abandoning the first principles of metaphysics, and the classical theories of knowledge, the question of ethics was now placed squarely in the realm of the human will by both parties; either with the emphasis on its communal (Marx), or its individual (Nietzsche) forms.

However, while the moral axiom: “How now shall we live?” remains the question that motivates us all, at least as a culture, if not as individuals, the answer remains an elusive target. Further, it is a question that motivates us even apart from, and independent of, any religious commitments. For we cannot help but live in a society of peers, and we cannot help but have moral intuitions about our relations to each other, and to the environment in which we live, and move, and have our being. And, even if one were banished and isolated to the proverbial deserted island, moral questions about how to treat oneself would still be with us even there.

“How now shall we live?” seems, therefore, to be a question that cannot be answered with any kind of unifying consensus if there is no agreement about our religious commitments, and even if there is agreement in our total rejection of any religious commitments whatsoever. With our without acknowledgment of God, we seem lost to a never-ending series of speculation about what is “the good” and what is “the good life.” To have unity on moral values and duties we would seem to require a real, extant, and clear moral principle, or Person, to either guide us into the Good, or tell us about it, or even model it for us.

Otherwise, what do we really have to say about morality?

Critical Theory as The New Theology

In his chapter, “To Seek to Salvage an Unconditional Meaning Without God is a Futile Undertaking: Reflections on a Remark of Max Horkheimer” the prodigious, second-wave philosopher of Critical Theory Jürgen Habermas says this about a comment made by his predecessor and founder of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, Max Horkheimer:

“Horkheimer’s interest in the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity was spurred less by a concern with God as such than with the redemptive power of God’s will. The injustice that comes to pass in a suffering creature should not be permitted to have the last word. At times it seems as if Horkheimer wanted to put the religious promise of redemption directly at the service of morality.”3 in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, 95

This passage, upon first reading, may seem obscure. However, once understood it can be shown that the idea contained herein, this notion of trying to realize the “redemptive power of God’s will” apart from any interest in God “as such,” is what lies at the heart of much, if not all, of the social justice movements that engulf and inflame our society today. It is the sentiment at the center of organizations like Black Lives Matter, and the fulcrum of initiatives that seek justice and the healing of division, yet attempt to do so without resort to a Divine Nature that grounds the apparently divine will found in traditional, religious texts. This, as we shall see, leads to a dangerous conflation: the confusion of the will of God with that of man; or the elevation of man to God rather than the descent of God to man.

First, however, what is Habermas saying about Horkheimer’s interest in “the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity?” Clearly, the critical philosopher, meaning Horkheimer, is presupposing “the death of God” as pronounced by Nietzsche, and assumed by Marx, as the inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment project of rationalization about religious belief. Thus, for all critical theorists, like Horkheimer or Habermas after him, that God is dead, meaning He never existed, is the starting point for any social theorizing, and any attempt to answer our question “How now shall we live?” Atheism is true, and we must simply get on with it.

Second, however, is the realization that we cannot seem to simply “get on with it!” The idea that the injustice that accompanies the suffering of sentient creatures, i.e. ourselves, animals, can be treated in a sterile, scientistic manner as mere “natural fact,” is simply unpalatable to the socially conscious, existentially sensitive human agent. How can we look at the long history of human and animal suffering, in all it horror, and say “well, that is just what molecules in motion do, and there is nothing more to say.” Certainly, there must be not only more to say, but also more to do! There must be a morality that gives us some meaningful context for that suffering, and that spurs us to some kind of ethical action. Stoic resignation is not an option for the critical theorist who seeks liberation from the oppression of such a woeful existence. In this sense, moral action becomes imperative for the critical theorist. For all critical theories, liberation from existential oppression is the focal point of all human thought and action.4 James Bohman writes in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosohpy entry on Critical Theory, “In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.

However, as we have alluded to above, morality according to the post-modern critical theorists cannot really be considered an object of the intellect, i.e. as something capable of being grasped or discovered by the natural light of reason. After all, if God is dead, then there is no ultimate truth about morality to grasp, nor universal standard to be discovered. No abstract reasoning about abstract “truths,” no further scientific investigations of natural processes, and no theological commentary about supposed special revelations from above, e.g. the Bible, will give us any real moral content. For, where there is no moral law Giver, there really is no moral law.

In light of this “reality,” the novel proposal to the problem of dealing with moral sensibilities about perceived injustices, arises out of being pressed in between a modern rock, which says there are only natural facts about the world, no moral ones, and a post-modern hard place, which cries out that we need morality to live and to thrive as sentient and feeling creatures. The proposal of Horkheimer then, and several others, was to assume the moral content of Christianity, and his native Judaism, as descriptively true, yet without assuming its God as real. Horkheimer does not consider the moral content to be true in the sense of referring to an ultimate, non-physical reality (which would make it an object of the intellect to be grasped), rather he asserts it, morality, as being useful to us for the sake of functioning well (imposing function being an object of the will).

Third, then, is assuming the particular Judeo-Christian content of morality, in spite of rejecting the metaphysics of biblical and theological claims. What then for Horkheimer (the ethnic Jew) is central to biblical morality?— it is the “religious promise of redemption.” Redemption, even a redemption without a Redeemer, is still the only hope for modern man to get on with modern life. Habermas details this aspect of Horkheimer’s thinking,

“Once the rationality of the remorse experienced by a religiously tutored conscience is rejected by a secularizing world, its place is taken by the moral sentiment of compassion. When Horkheimer expressly defines the good tautologically as the attempt to abolish evil, he has in view a solidarity with the suffering of vulnerable and forsaken creatures provoked by outrage against concrete injustices.” (Habermas, 96)

In other words: even when we realize that religion is metaphysically false (and feel remorse because of it), we nevertheless recognize that our moral intuitions have been “tutored” by thousands of years of religious practice. And, even more, we still sense that those religious sentiments (even if they be only that, sentiments) are somehow correct, and worth defending. So, we feel compassionate in spite of the stark reality of a brute, naturalistic universe, a universe that is indifferent to us, and therefore are still moved to fight “evil” when we “see” it in the form of concrete injustices (knowing full well that there is no such thing as justice against which we can actually measure our feelings about the perceived injustice). Our outrage is stoked when we perceive these apparent imbalances in society, and our compassion demands we respond accordingly. Habermas goes on to tell us more about Horkheimer’s plundering of this particularly Christian moral content:

“The reconciling power of compassion does not stand in opposition to the galvanizing power of rebellion against a world devoid of atonement and reparation for injustice. Solidarity and justice are two sides of the same coin; hence, the ethics of compassion does not dispute the legitimacy of the morality of justice but merely frees it form the rigidity of the ethics of conscience.” (Habermas, 96)

But, now we come to the heart of the moral matter, if indeed God is not that heart. Having jettisoned religious belief as true but still finding that we have a conscience that has been trained in and molded by religious content, in particular that of Judeo-Christianity and the Bible, we are now told by the critical theorist that in a world where there is no “real” atonement and reparation for injustice, because there is no real God to do the atoning and repairing, our own “reconciling power of compassion” must be the vehicle by which “concrete injustices” are rectified. After all, if we are not going to be the ones to do the redeeming, then the redemption will not, cannot, come. Moreover, this immanent, and human-centered power of compassion, is not opposed to the “galvanizing power of rebellion,” but rather embraces it.5 one might think here of Saul Alinsky’s dedication in his classic work Rules for Radicals, where the author commends Lucifer for his rebellion, a rebellion that won him his own kingdom. In other words, if there is no God to atone for us, yet atonement is still necessary for us to live morally and to have an “unconditional” meaning that contextualizes our suffering, then in a world where there are concrete instances of things we perceive as unjust, and that “must” be made right for us to experience atonement, rebellion becomes a morally acceptable vehicle of redemption.

Compassion and rebellion are the new moral dynamo generating the new, moral society. This begins to look very familiar to what we see currently on our television screens and YouTube videos, where cries for justice and compassion are inevitably accompanied by acts of rebellion and revolutionary fervor. This is the politicizing of religiosity, the messianism of our times.6 Few journalist have done a better job of identifying and explaining the new religion of Social Justice than Andrew Sullivan, see here https://andrewsullivan.substack.com/p/the-roots-of-wokeness


But here is where those who identify themselves with “Christ” face the stark choice: We must decide whether the critical theorist is right in saying that religious belief itself is a mere product of man’s own making, and that its truth claims (like all others) are historically situated and thus unfixed from anything transhistorical, transfinite, or culturally transcendent. For if this is the case, then the redemption we need may tell us something about ourselves, our current “society,” but tells us nothing about anything beyond ourselves, or this latest version of ourselves. If Horkheimer is right, then Critical [social] theory is the new theology, in that it calls us to a form of moral life, even one replete with corporate atonement and communal redemption; however, it is a theology without a theos, or, at least, without a divine theos. It is religion “from below,” an earth without a heaven:

[Social theory] has superseded theology but has no new heaven to which it can point, not even a mundane one. Of course, social theory cannot completely efface [heaven’s] traces and hence is repeatedly questioned about how it is to be attained–as though it were not precisely the discovery of social [critical] theory that the heaven to which one can point the way is no heaven.” (Habermas, 98)

For in a world that is itself the sum of all reality, the new religion of social theory, with its hope for an immanent, social justice, the new heaven just is that culture which will result (perhaps for us, most likely for our children or grandchildren) if we were only to act now! What that new culture will be like, of course, is not something we can really say much about. You have to arrive in the “undiscovered country” before you can know what it will be like.

Alternatively to this New Theology, we can choose to believe that there is a something beyond ourselves, even a Someone, whose eternal life and transcendent nature is reflected in that which He has created. Further we can come to believe that our need for redemption tells us as much about the eternal Creator as it does of His temporal creatures. Instead of listening to the words of the critical theorist, we listen instead to the words of the critical realist, who says:

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20)

Either those things that are called moral evils are, as the critical theorist says, the product of human construction, and, consequently, the redemption that they demand also the product of human construction; or, they are, as the Apostle Paul says, the product of human rebellion against ultimate reality, and, consequently, redeemable only through the reconstructive action of the author of that reality. In ontological terms, redemption is either a bottom-up struggle performed by purely accidental creatures, and which has included in it the creation of culturally relative theological concepts and religious practices that aid us in our survival; or it is a top-down event, one enacted by a necessary Creator who has given us reason that allows us to form ideas, concepts, and language to describe that which is ultimately and actually real.

Whichever we decide will make a world of difference in what happens “down here” and in our daily lives. For on the former view the only authority against which we rise up is that of men and women just like ourselves, yet who merely constructed morality in a different fashion than we do today, a dynamic which implies an endless process of doing the same deconstruction and reconstruction with every generation of human society. On the latter view, however, the authority we are rebelling against is not like us, because He is not us, and we are not Him. Moreover, in virtue of not being like us, He (or It) may have an actual answer to our moral problem, so long as we can have access to Him (or It). And, if we have access to Him, we may be able to change who we are, and if we can be changed, then so can our moral behavior. And, if our moral behavior can change, so to the society in which we live.

Conflating the Divine Will With Human Will: Black Lives Matter And the Doctrine of “Heal Thyself”

In paragraph four of their statement about “What We Believe,” the most powerful and dominant social justice movement of our time: Black Lives Matter, claims the following: “Every day, we recommit to healing ourselves and each other, and to co-creating alongside comrades, allies, and family a culture where each person feels seen, heard, and supported.”7 (https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/) This doctrine of “self-healing” or “heal thyself” is fundamentally related to the above exposition of the early critical theorist, Max Horkheimer’s, notion of a theology without God. Upon further reading of the Black Lives Matter doctrinal statement, one will quickly discern that the moral and religious impulse is still there: human dignity is presupposed, redemption is what matters, and liberation is the key. The only problem is that we are the only agents of atonement (and, oh is there a process for how to atone!), as well as the only standard by which we name what is good “good”, and distinguish it from what is “evil.” Again, the determining factor of moral judgments no longer being the intellect seeking knowledge, but the will exercising power. Human power becomes the sole vehicle for societal change, because the human will is the sole determiner of moral “truth.”

In his short work Marxism and Christianity, former Marxist now Roman Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre says this about the role of religion in the life of the individual agent:

“But religion is only able to have this latter transforming function because and insofar as it enables individuals to identify and to understand themselves independently of their position in the existing social structure. It is in the contrast between what society tells a man he is and what religion tells him he is that he is able to find grounds both for criticizing the status quo and for believing that it is possible for him to act with others in changing it.”

MacIntyre. Marxism and Christianity. Apple Books, 13.

MacIntyre wrote this in 1968, many years before his conversion to Catholicism. This is why the astute observer will take note of MacIntyre’s fundamental metaphysical flaw when he says “it is in the contrast between what society tells a man he is and what religion tells him he is.” At that time, MacIntyre, like so many social justice theorists and social justice activists of today, confused the dictates of religion with the reality of God. Still a metaphysical naturalist, religion for MacIntrye was, as it remained for Horkheimer, merely a set of descriptive, yet non-referring claims—a set of sociological constructs, not universal moral truths revealed by a divine will. At some point for MacIntyre that understanding of religion ended, and his attention, unlike Horkheimer, turned to God “as such.”

To turn to God “as such” is to recognize the reality of the Divine Nature, and come to understand the words of the Bible and the content of the Christian faith no longer as just highly compelling products of human sentiment, but as divinely revealed fixtures of an intricately designed cosmos. A cosmos replete with essences and natural kinds, with ontological realities that can be examined by reason, be experienced with the affections, and by which we can gauge our moral attitudes, harness the best of our moral intuitions, and help guide our moral actions.

To not see this objective, mind-independent, fabric of the universe; a fabric not woven by human brains, but by a divine Mind, is ultimately to conflate God’s will with our own. For to look at the Bible and think of it as merely a human book, as Horkheimer did, even if a book worthy of plundering for the cause of moral action and the execution of justice, is to conflate the human will with the divine. It is to grant divinity to ourselves, and to elevate our own goodness as we conveniently ignore all the evil that we have done, and will continue to do. It is to try and do Christianity without Christ. It is to “heal ourselves.”

For many Social Justice theorists and activists today, society is all there is, and it does “tell a man what he is,” or perhaps “what it is.” For them to change society is for them to change man. But for the Christian this is not so, nor is it, as the younger MacIntyre erroneously claimed, religion that tells a man what he is. It is God who tells us who we are, and that divine speech act of identity, that communication from above, can be found both in the careful observation of His creation, and in the direct revelation of His Word.

That is the Old Theology. Theology with theos.

The Power of Tearful Prayers – Remembering St. Monica on Mother’s Day

“There are many things which I do not set down in this book…But I will omit not a word that my mind can bring to birth concerning your servant, my mother. In the flesh she brought me to birth in this world: in her heart she brought me to birth in your eternal light.”

– Aurelius Augustine

Aurelius Augustine was a pagan and sinful young man: addicted to sex, ambitious and full of pride, an idolater of pagan gods and believer of false religions. His mother, however, was nothing of the sort. She was a faithful daughter of Jesus Christ, a loving mother of a disobedient son, and a prayer warrior unlike any other. In his autobiography, The Confessions (397 AD), this same Augustine, the once pagan man who, having been converted at the age of 33, would go on to impact the Christian church more than any other thinker in the first 1,000 years of its history, would dedicate his book to two people: the living God Jesus Christ, and his mother, Monica.

Of his mother Augustine writes:

But you [God] sent down your help from above and rescued my soul from the depths of this darkness because my mother, your faithful servant, wept to you for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son.

Confessions, Book III, Chap. 10

Night and day my mother poured out her tears to you and offered her heart-blood in sacrifice for me, and in the most wonderful way you guided me.

Confessions, Book V, Chap. 7

We cannot underestimate the power of either parent in the life of a child, and the importance of fathers in the lives of children has been well documented by psychologists and social scientists over the last several decades. Parents are fundamental to the psychological, emotional, and physical development and well-being of their children. This well-being often translates into all kinds of successes: successes in career, in education, and in social relations. However, even the best of parents, the most wise and most learned, the most virtuous, will fail from time to time. But, the wisest parents also know that when it comes to the faith of their children, they are ultimately not in control. Faith is not something that can be engineered through good parenting, faith is a gift from God.

As Augustine’s own testimony reveals, it was the concern of his mother over the status of his soul that mattered most to her. In fact, he tells us that at one point in his childhood when he took deathly ill due to a “disorder of the stomach” (a virus, perhaps?), it was not his physical health that grieved his beloved mother most, but the state of her son’s salvation that distressed her spirit:

My earthly mother was deeply anxious, because in the pure faith of her heart, she was in greater labour to ensure my eternal salvation than she had been at my birth. Had I not quickly recovered, she would have hastened to see that I was admitted to the sacraments of salvation and washed clean by acknowledging you, Lord Jesus, for the pardon of my sins.

Confessions, Book I, Chap. 11

In other words, while it remains the place of any good mother to make sure their children have well-balanced meals on the table, wear safety helmets while bike riding, look 5 times before crossing the street, and yes, maybe even ensure the use of hand sanitizer in times of global pandemics; the truly wise mother will take note of the concerns of this great mother and saint of the Church, Monica, whose distress over the state of her child’s soul was of far greater importance than the stomach virus that ravaged his body. For the true mark of love is not the safety of the child in this life, but his security in the life to come. And it was this reason, and this reason alone, that she turned her face to God in tearful prayer.

This Sunday we remember the faithful tears of all the mothers of the Church, and all those faithful mothers who have gone before them; mothers who have shed endless tears on behalf of their children, children young, and children grown, obedient daughters, and prodigal sons. But we think not only of motherly tears shed for mere bodily health, or for worldly successes, or even for temporal happiness. We commemorate instead the deeper tears of those mothers’ hearts that plead for the everlasting soul of their children. The tears that move the very heart of God, and that help to change the course of human history.

These are the tears of St. Monica, the mother of Aurelius Augustine, the pagan boy who gave his whole life over to Christ, who became the most influential voice of the Church in his time, whose works have inspired billions of people, and whose greatest book, The Confessions, was dedicated to his mom.

Happy Mother’s Day to all our mothers- You, Faithful Daughters of the King. You, Tearful Warriors of Christ!

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Logic)

Logic

This final area of philosophical inquiry is somewhat other than the rest. Logic is not so much a part of human life to investigate, as a tool we seem capable of accessing in order to do the investigation well. Logic is similar to language in that, while we can think reflexively about both, we need both in order to think reflexively, and think well. Yet, that there is also a second-order, philosophical question about why logic works, or what are logical connections, is itself certainly true. Still logic is essentially just good reasoning, and reasoning is something we do naturally. To study logic is to study the nature of reasoning, and develop methods and strategies by which our reasoning can improve, and truth attained.

Some forms of logic, like symbolic logic, are also similar to languages, albeit non-natural ones. They are highly abstract. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead, developed symbolic logical systems designed to eliminate the ambiguity associated with classical forms of logic that deal with natural language. These systems, based on mathematical reasoning, attempt to illustrate purely structural relationships between entities, regardless of whether such entities are real or not, and they sometimes go under the umbrella term Logicism. These highly abstracted, a priori systems are very technical, and tend to be utilized by professional philosophers in specialized areas of research (like Logic itself).

Alternatively, Classical, or Aristotelian, logic is primarily a prescriptive set of rules regulating our mental operations when seeking the truth about claims about reality. Classical logic deals with natural language claims, and the relationship between words and sentences of natural languages (e.g. English, German, Mandarin, etc.), that is it deals with grammars. It is this kind of logic I will discuss here, since it is most commonly used in developing arguments related to the defense of the Christian faith, and many other areas of everyday philosophical investigation like philosophy of science, religion, aesthetics, and politics.

Formal & Informal Logic

Formal Logic is fundamentally about one thing: structural validity of arguments. This differs from informal logic, which primarily has to do with logical fallacies in premises.

Most people are familiar with some aspects of informal logic, for example fallacies like: the genetic fallacy, ad hominem fallacies, or the fallacy of composition. Most informal fallacies fall into larger categories like: Fallacies of Ambiguity, Relevance, or Sufficiency. Informal fallacies are not less damaging than formal ones, they are just not related to the “form” of an argument. They have to do with language and the meaning of words and sentences.

Informal fallacies usually apply to the sentences themselves, not to the relational structures, or grammar, of arguments. Here is an example of an informal fallacy:

Socrates is a Greek. Greek is a language. Therefore, Socrates is a language.

This is an example of a fallacy of Ambiguity, since the term “Greek” has multiple meanings in common parlance. Thus, it would have to be clarified what the term means in the context it is given. Here is another informal fallacy:

John is an evangelical Christian, so what would he know about science? Even if he has a PhD in micro-biology, he can’t do real science.

This is an example of a fallacy of Relevance, in this case a kind of ad hominem attack, or attack against the person. More specifically this particular instance is a “poisoning the well” fallacy, making an initial claim about a person (or group) that tries to undermine any future claims they may make about a given topic, here the biological sciences. The fact that John is a Christian is simply irrelevant to his being able to practice science well or make accurate pronouncements on scientific issues.

Another kind of fallacy of Relevance is the Genetic Fallacy, which attacks the source of the claim, as opposed to the claim itself:

Evolution endowed human beings with certain cognitive capacities that led to the rise of beliefs in God and gods among early, prehistoric communities. Therefore, belief in God is irrational.

Here, it is argued that because it may be the case that human beings, over a long prehistory, developed certain cognitive capacities that facilitated the belief in supernatural beings, or a supernatural Being, that therefore the belief in those beings, or Being, is irrational. However, the source of the formation of the belief is not ultimately what determines if the belief is true. That must be determined on other grounds, otherwise the Genetic fallacy has been committed.

One final kind of informal fallacy is the fallacy of Insufficiency. This usually has to do with premises that do not rely on a sufficient amount of data or factual evidence to be considered strong premises. For example:

My friend Joe has been smoking all his life, and he has never had any problems with his lungs; therefore, smoking is just fine!

Here we have the fallacy of Hasty Generalization, which bases a radical conclusion, to assume smoking is fine for your health, on a very small amount of evidence: knowledge of just one friend’s capacity to smoke and not get ill. That is called an appeal to “anecdotal” evidence and would be insufficient to warrant starting to, or continuing to, smoke.

Most informal fallacies are found in inductive arguments, not deductive ones, and there are many more informal fallacies that we could give examples for. For a good introduction to Informal Fallacies, see here.

Formal logic

Formal logic, in contrast to informal logic, is concerned with demonstrating how syntax (the order of a sentence) is related to relational validity when two or more sentences are fit together in a grammatical structure. Formal logic is a means to demonstrate how, when declarative statements are strung together through certain operative words like “if…then” “and” and “or,” or “some” and “all,” and put into a sequential order, the conjunction of those sentences compel us to accept or reject a conclusion by the sheer light of reason. Errors in the structure of an argument, however, do not say anything about the argument’s conclusion being true or false, just that the arrangement, or form, of the argument does not show the conclusion to be true or false, because it contains a structural deficiency.

For example, the following argument is logically valid, but the conclusion is false:

Premise 1: All cats are blue
Premise 2: Tabby is a cat
Conclusion: Therefore, Tabby is blue

Here, the structure of the argument is valid, for if all cats really are blue, and if Tabby is a cat, then Tabby must be blue. Of course the problem is that premise 1 is simply false.

And, conversely, here is an example of a conclusion that is true, but where the argument is invalid, and therefore does not demonstrate the conclusion’s truth:

Premise 1: Some men are bald
Premise 2: Tony is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Tony is bald

Now, it does so happen that the “Tony” I am thinking about, namely myself, is bald, and thus the conclusion is true. But, because the argument is not valid, it bears no weight on that conclusion. It is an invalid argument because premise 1 only says that “some” particular men are bald, and while premise 2 does pick out a particular man named “Tony,” there is no logical connection between the “some” of premise 1, and the “Tony” of premise 2 that forces us to conclude Tony is bald (even if this particular Tony does happen to be bald, that is purely accidental).

If however, like in the previous example, the universal affirmative “all” was used in premise 1, then the argument would be valid, although the conclusion would now be rendered false. Thus, the following is again valid, but false:

Premise 1: All men are bald
Premise 2: Brad Pitt is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Brad Pitt is bald

Propositional or Semantic Content

Sentences however are not really what we are interested in, rather we are interested in something far more “mysterious,” namely propositions. Sentences are just the linguistic expression of propositions, or semantic content. Therefore, propositions themselves are often, and correctly, seen as non-linguistic, immaterial, yet real objects. This can be demonstrated as follows:

  1. The snow is white
  2. Der Schnee ist weiss

Both of these sentences mean exactly the same thing. However, they are clearly not the same sentence. What is identical is the proposition behind each set of words, i.e. that “snow is white.” But the words themselves are obviously not identical. Moreover, if we were to write a third sentence in Mandarin Chinese, we could have entirely different symbols, yet the same meaning or propositional content. Thus, we can show that propositions and their sentences are not identical.

Logic is therefore the main tool we use to “see” whether two or more sentences, linguistic devices that represent propositions, if tied together in some kind of grammatical structure, force us to think something may, or must, be the case. There is yet another kind of logic, modal logic, which deals expressly with the idea of whether or not certain propositions are “necessarily” true, or only “possibly” true, etc. Simple propositional logic however helps us to determine the truth value of a sentence, which itself is the linguistic expression of propositional content. In classical propositional logic then, there are only two possible values for any declarative sentence, “true” or “false.”

The grammatical structuring of sentences for the sake of determining truth is what we often call an “argument.” Arguments in philosophy come in two main categories: deductive and inductive arguments.

Deductive Arguments

Deductive arguments are comprised of premises and a conclusion. The main thing to know about deductive arguments is this: if the premises are true, and the structure of the argument valid, then the conclusion MUST be true. The classic example of a deductive argument is this:

Premise 1: All men are mortal
Premise 2: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Therefore Socrates is mortal

If P1 and P2 are both true, then it has to be the case that the conclusion follows. So it goes with deductive formulations of arguments. An example of a deductive argument often used in the Apologetics is the Kalam Cosmological argument, which usually is presented as such:

Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
Premise 2: The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore the universe had a cause


If P1 and P2 are true, then the conclusion must follow. Another way of thinking about Deductive Arguments is that they tend to start with a general theory or statement and reason toward a specific conclusion. This can been clearly seen in the two aforementioned arguments that start with broad statements about “all men” and “mortality” and “whatever begins” and “causes” to “Socrates” and “this universe.”

Because Deductive arguments are meant to force one to either accept a conclusion, or reject the truthfulness of one of the argument’s premises, the structure of deductive arguments has to follow certain rules of logic. One way to try and test for the validity of an argument is through Natural Deduction.

Natural Deduction utilizes some intuitive rules of logic, or rules of inference, to create deductively valid arguments. The nine most useful rules of inference are: modus ponens, modus tollens, addition, disjunctive syllogism, simplification, conjunction, hypothetical syllogism, constructive dilemma, and absorption. The aforementioned examples both use the rule “modus ponens” as a means of demonstration. Valid, or sound, deductive arguments are the strongest kinds of arguments, since they force a conclusion upon the hearer.

However, there are very few deductive arguments for anything that cannot to some degree be questioned in the soundness of their individual premises, even if their structures are valid. Finally, the main fallacy associated with Deductive Arguments, is “begging the question” which goes something like this:

Premise 1: The Bible says that God exists
Premise 2: The Bible is true because it is God’s word
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists

Here, the conclusion may be true (I certainly think it is), but the argument is helpless to show it true, because it requires God’s existence to show that the Bible is true (premise 2), yet God’s existence is what the argument is supposed to prove. Thus, from this argument alone, we cannot know the Bible is true, and if we cannot know the Bible is true, then we cannot know that God exists. It “begs the question” or, in other terms, it is “circular reasoning.” Atheists can run into similar problems:

Premise 1: Reason tells us that God does not exist
Premise 2: Reason is the source of all truth
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist

Same problem here, since to claim that “Reason” is the source of all truth, requires the use of reason itself. But, how do we know that the very tool we are using to attain truth is itself reliable? Thus, it “begs the question” about whether or not reason really is the source of all truth by simply asserting it to be the case.

Inductive Arguments

Inductive arguments, in contrast with deductive ones, are meant to give strong reasons for the likelihood of a conclusion, but do not force a decision upon the hearer to either accept the conclusion, or reject one of the premises. The hearer could think the premises are strongly supported by the facts, and that the conclusion is strong based on the conjunction of those factually supported premises, yet still believe that there is room for the conclusion to be false. Induction is the primary form of scientific reasoning, and usually starts with particular or specific observations in order to work toward a general conclusion. Inductive arguments are therefore probabilistic in nature. Here is a common example:

Premise 1: Every time I have walked Susie’s dog, it has not bit me
Premise 2: Tomorrow I will walk Susie’s dog
Conclusion: Therefore, when I walk Susie’s dog tomorrow, he won’t bite me

Here, we can see that the conclusion is not certain, but it very well may be probable, especially if the dog walker has walked Susie’s dogs several times without incident. It may not be necessary for me to believe with certainty that Susie’s dog will not bite the walker, but I may wind up believing that due to the pattern that has been set. This is an example of what we might call an inductive generalization.

Another example:

Premise 1: 85% of Americans own at least one TV set
Premise 2: Tom is an American
Conclusion: Therefore, probably Tom owns a TV set.

Inductive arguments can focus on one set of data, e.g. past dog-walks, ratio of TV’s to American citizens, and try to make a strong, albeit not absolute, inference to the truth. Some, like the second example, can be statistical in nature, and thus, if done right, can be fairly compelling.

Many arguments for or against the existence of God due to the problem of Evil are probabilistic, or inductive ones:

Premise 1: If an an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, then there likely would be no gratuitous evil in the world
Premise 2: There is gratuitous evil in the world
Conclusion: Therefore, it is unlikely that an all-loving, all-powerful God exists

Here, one can see that the conclusion is not certain, it is only a probability argument, and one not based on quantifiable data, but a common sense, qualitative notion of likelihood. There are many responses to this kind of argument against God from the PoE, and both premises can be challenged.

Abductive or Inference to the Best Explanation

As Apologists we often use deductive and inductive arguments to either force a conclusion regarding a specific theistic belief (e.g. God exists), or to compel one to accept the likelihood of a specific belief (e.g. probably Jesus rose from the dead). However, when defending Christianity as an all-encompassing worldview, our apologetical project often synthesizes together many different deductive and inductive arguments to show that, on the whole, Christian theism is the best explanation for the world, and our experience of that world.

This kind of reasoning, where we take into account various scientific and historical facts, philosophical arguments, and other natural and human phenomena to provide an overarching theory, or explanation, is called abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation. This is perhaps the most commonly used form of reasoning today in Christian Apologetics, and is often called “cumulative case” reasoning by popular authors and speakers. This kind of reasoning tries to fulfill certain explanatory criteria, such as: explanatory power, explanatory scope, lack of ad hocness, simplicity, predictive capacity, etc., and show why Christianity is a better fit to explain certain facts about the world.

One can think of many facts, or givens, about our experience of reality that seem to be best explained by a broadly religious, or even specifically Christian, explanation of the world.

For example:

  • the almost universal belief in human souls,
  • compelling reports of near death experiences,
  • the existence of anything at all,
  • the intuition of cause and effect,
  • the hard problem of consciousness,
  • the argument from desire,
  • the phenomenon of beauty in both the natural world and in human art,
  • the sense of having free will,
  • the nature of morality,
  • the abundance of miracle reports,
  • the complexity and variety of biological life,
  • the historical witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,
  • the rise, global spread, and longevity of the Christian faith,
  • and, of course, personal religious experiences and changed lives.

When all taken together, and weighed against various competing hypotheses, one can see how the Christian worldview is a powerful explanatory hypothesis when put up against other views like naturalism, pantheism, or polytheism. While cumulative case arguments are not arguments in the same sense as deductive ones, they get right to the heart of answering the most fundamental human question: why? Abductive reasoning of this sort is also the primary way scientific theories are developed. It is the most common, and natural, form of logical argumentation.

Conclusion to Philosophical Apologetics

This series on Apologetics has first taken into account the four main areas of Philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Logic. At this point the young Christian, or the Christian young in the faith, may feel overwhelmed. How, after all, can one learn “all this stuff!?” While it is clearly not necessary to be an expert in any of these fields to evangelize, since the power of the Gospel is itself sufficient to convert even the hardest heart, we should also not relinquish the battlefield of ideas to the skeptic, the materialist, or the co-religionist. The pursuit of knowledge is part and parcel of the Christian life of discipleship, and so I end this section with the words of one of the “greatest” of Christ’s disciples, John Wesley:

If we are “overseers over the Church of God, which he hath bought with his own blood,” what manner of men ought we to be, in gifts as well as in grace? …

To begin with gifts, and with those that are from nature: Ought not a Minister to have, First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness? Is not this necessary in an high degree for the work of the ministry? Otherwise, how will he be able to understand the various states of those under his care; or to steer them through a thousand difficulties and dangers, to the haven where they would be? Is it not necessary, with respect to the numerous enemies whom he has to encounter? Can a fool cope with all the men that know not God, and with all the spirits of darkness? Nay, he will neither be aware of the devices of Satan, nor the craftiness of his children.

He goes on…

Some knowledge of the sciences also, is, to say the least, equally expedient. Nay, may we not say, that the knowledge of one (whether art or science), although now quite unfashionable, is even necessary next to, and in order to, the knowledge of the Scripture itself? I mean logic. For what is this, if rightly understood, but the art of good sense? of apprehending, things clearly, judging truly, and reasoning conclusively? What is it, viewed in another light, but the art of learning and teaching, whether by convincing or persuading? What is there, then, in the whole compass of science, to be desired in comparison of it?

Is not some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic (metaphysics), if not so necessary as this, yet highly expedient, (1.) In order to clear our apprehension (without which it is impossible either to judge correctly, or to reason closely or conclusively) by ranging our ideas under general heads? And, (2.) In order to understand many useful writers, who can very hardly be understood without it?

John Wesley, An Address to the Clergy (1756)

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Epistemology)

Continuing in this short series on Apologetics, here is part II which deals with Epistemology, the second area of Philosophical Apologetics.

Epistemology

The study of how we know things is called Epistemology, from the Greek episteme (belief), and logos (knowledge or understanding). It is in this sense that Epistemology is often considered first in the order of philosophical inquiry, for before we can have any knowledge about what kinds of things exist, or how things change over time, or what powers or liabilities substances may have, we would first have to know about how we know these things, and whether or not when we say we know something, we actually do know it.

Current theories of Epistemology differ noticeably from classical theories of knowledge, most of which derive from Plato and Aritstotle who presented knowledge as justified, true belief, even though it is Xenophanes who is often referenced as the father of Epistemology. Moreover, Aristotle’s correspondence theory of truth was the standard theory of truth for well over a millennia, and at least until the Enlightenment in the West. It is stated succinctly:

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Although late 19th and 20th century philosophers and theologians have claimed that the Correspondence Theory (CT) of truth is no longer a viable epistemic theory of knowledge, the fact remains that the CT is still the most common-sensical, and most commonly used approach to knowledge. Thus, it cannot ever be fully discounted, nor relegated to some philosophical dustbin of history. It will always have its defenders, and, most who defend Christianity as a true worldview, will rely on the CT as their primary approach to truth, since a straightforward reading of Scripture best aligns with the CT.

As such then, we have two classical theories, one about truth itself, the Correspondence Theory (CT), and the other about knowledge of truth, or Justified True Belief (JTB for short).

However, there have been major shifts in Epistemology since the classical and Christian medieval eras. Two such shifts were seismic in their impact on Western thought, and our current approach to knowledge. The first such shift came with Rene Descarte, whose attempt to find epistemic certainty established a theory known as foundationalism as the best available theory for guaranteeing knowledge. Foundationalism, in short, is the theory that all justified true beliefs have to be grounded in some foundational beliefs that themselves are not justified by other beliefs. They are justified by something we call “givens” or “raw feels” or “direct experiences.”

Foundationalism

Foundational beliefs are directly given, usually through introspection, direct perception, or something like hearing a personal testimony and remembering it. For Descarte, the foundation of all other beliefs was “Cogito Ergo Sum” or “I think therefore I am.” Or, in other words, because I am a thinking thing, I can at least have certainty that I exist, for something, the “I” or self, has to be doing the thinking. There is obviously much more that could be said about Foundationalism than this, both its “Cartesian” version, and more contemporary versions. To illustrate, however, here are some examples of how Foundationalism might work.

Call a particular belief, (B), for short. Each belief has some proportional content to it, call that (P).

  • B1 = Tony believes that (P1) “the trees outside his back window are green.”

How does Tony know that B1 is justified? Answer: He simply sees trees that appear green to him. The perception of the trees itself is not a belief, it is a “given” that forces the belief upon him.

  • B2 = Tony believes that (P2) “he is thinking about Foundationalism as a theory of justified belief.”

How does Tony know that B2 is justified? His internal introspection of his own thoughts (his thinking about his thinking) cannot be false. The content of his thoughts could be wrong, but that he is having those particular thoughts is neither true or false, he simply is having the thoughts he is having, it is a given that forces the belief to emerge. Givens on Foundationalism are something like non-propositional, direct awarenesses, or immediate experiences.

Still, in the 20th century, Foundationalism fell on hard times, which lead to an emergence of other theories of truth and justified belief. Two alternative theories to Foundationalism are: the coherence theory, or Coherentism, and Post Modernism.

Alternatives to Foundationalism

Coherentism argues that there are no real givens, or direct experiences, that cannot be doubted, and therefore there are no real foundational beliefs. All direct experiences: perception, testimony, memory, even introspection, could, after all, be faulty. We can see this since it is obvious that even the most apparently true perceptions in fact could be faulty, either because they are interpreted wrongly, or they are just not real (like vivid dreams, or drug-induced illusions). Or, we could see how even the famed “Cogito Ergo Sum” may not work on a Hindu understanding of the “I” or “self.”

As such, what matters is not what foundation one’s belief structure stands on, but to what degree one’s individual beliefs logically cohere. In other words, does one have a network of beliefs with as few contradictions as possible. The main problem with Coherentism is that it seems to ignore the truth value of particular beliefs in favor of how those beliefs relate to one another. Thus, that one could have many individual beliefs that cohere well together, but otherwise have little to nothing to do with reality, seems clearly possible, and this is crippling to the coherentist view.

Coherentism in this sense, seems to abandon the Correspondence Theory of truth, and neglect the requirement that beliefs be related somehow to reality, or, in other terms, to a metaphysical counterpart. If Foundationalism is a bottom up belief structure, like a building or pyramid, Coherentism is like a web of beliefs, or a raft, that hangs in mid-air, or floats amid a sea of moving waters.

Post-Modernism, if it can be called an epistemic theory at all, is essentially a view that says no beliefs require any justification at all. And that primarily because it views “truth” fundamentally as a construct or project of either individual minds, or of cultural communities. Reality for the Post-Modernist is simply inaccessible, and because it is inaccessible, every claim to “truth” is inherently false, as it is fundamentally an interpretation of one’s personal experience of something we know not what.

Post-Modernism as an epistemic view can be traced back to Immanuel Kant who made a fateful distinction between the noumena and the phenomena, or “the thing itself” and “the thing for me” (in German “das Ding an sich” and “das Ding fur mich.”) For Kant the activity of the mind made it impossible for us to ever know “the thing in itself” and we could only know “thing thing as it appears to me.” Post-modernism, in this restricted, epistemic sense, says that knowledge is essentially unattainable, because every “fact” about the world, even scientific ones, goes through an interactive, interpretive process.

On Post-modernistic theories, therefore, we should see claims to truth as expressions about one’s experience of the world, not of the world itself. Or, more nefarious perhaps, Post-modernists who have also bought into versions of Critical Theory, see statements as fundamentally “power plays” (alla Nietzsche) aimed at achieving far more immediate and pragmatic benefits. Truth, or claims to it, on this view are primarily assertions of the will to power, means to try and control others for personal or national gain. “Truth” claims are expressions of the philosopher’s desires, not actual conclusions about the world.

Furthermore, on Post-modernist views of knowledge, abstract thought and metaphysical speculation become almost totally irrelevant, or, are seen as linguistic games that have these far more mundane goals. As such, “God talk” is often not about an actual divine, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, causally efficacious personal Being and Creator of the universe, but rather about our human concepts of such a Being, and how those concepts cause us to think, or not think, to do, or not do, certain things in the physical world.

“Post-modern Christianity” has become a popular trend since the 1960’s, and is often connected to liberal and progressive forms of Christianity, but need not be so liberal. For theologians have pointed out for centuries that reason itself is damaged through the Fall of Adam, and, in that sense, there are always, and only, finite and flawed interpretations of reality.

While some people who attach themselves to post-modernism, tend to see foundational truth claims as ever-changing and always in need of reinterpretation, this doesn’t have to be the case. But, it does make it very difficult to understand how there can be any universal truth of the Gospel that transcends both time and culture. The “poster-boy” for this kind of Christianity was for many years Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was notorious for rejecting almost every metaphysical and moral claim of the Bible, yet still presenting himself as a believing Christian, and leader in the Episcopalian church. Occasionally one will see atheist “Christians” who are still employed as pastors or preachers by some church that has bought into post-modernism like this.

A counter to this kind of extreme post-Modernism in so-called Christian circles, might be a modified or moderate post-modernism, one which takes into account the fact that reason seems often not only deficient, but also not neutral. In other words we are creatures of desire as much as reason, and if there are real noetic effects of sin, then there may be a form of reason itself that must be redeemed in order for us to really think properly about anything.

Still, as an epistemic theory, post-Modernism has rightly been shown by professional philosophers to be not only a self-refuting proposition, but also a fairly dangerous one at that. Much of the rise of philosophical popularizers like Jordan Peterson has been due to their withering critique of Post-Modernism.

Externalist Answers to Epistemological Problems

The second seismic shift of the Epistemological landscape started with a landmark paper written by Edmund Gettier in 1963, whose name is now synonymous with certain epistemological thought experiments, know as “Gettier problems.” Gettier basically showed in his very short essay (just under 3 pages) that one can have justified, true beliefs, yet still not have real knowledge about something. The key to what makes the difference between having a justified true belief, yet not having knowledge, depends on how I came to have the justified, true belief. In short it cannot be the case that in my “mental journey” to having a justified and true belief, there was a false belief, or something purely accidental, that lead me to have that justified and true belief. I cannot say I know reality, if it happens by sheer luck, or through some falsehood, that I hold a justified, true belief!

Without going into detail on how Gettier showed this discrepancy in the classical formulation of knowledge, these problematic thought experiments led to what is now called “externalist” views of knowledge, or views that posit that a belief can be justified based on how it was formed, and that regardless of whether or not the believer is aware of any reasons for actually believing what she does.

Reliablism, or Proper Function views are called externalist views of justified belief. They rely not on whether there are foundational beliefs per se, or what those beliefs may be (although some Reliablist and Proper Function advocates, like Alvin Plantinga, are also foundationalists), but focus mainly on how the beliefs themselves are formed. Thus, the Proper Functional view, for example, posits a model of what it thinks it would take for a belief to be justified, and, if that model is correct, then we can assume we have at least some justified beliefs, and hence some knowledge. Robert Audi, a Christian philosopher, describes reliablistic interpretations of knowledge succinctly:

“Knowledge, so conceived, results from the successful functioning of our epistemic equipment, which consists above all of finely tuned perceptual, memorial, introspective, and rational instruments.” (Audi, Epistemology)

In this sense, knowledge is the result of the proper functioning of our mental “equipment,” similar to how the healthy flow of blood in the body results from the proper functioning of our heart. How we know whether our mental equipment is functioning properly, however, is another problem.

There tends to be two ways of looking at externalist views like Proper Function as an epistemic theory: a naturalistic, and a supernaturalistic way. Naturalistic views treat human beings as basically highly evolved, yet purely biological animals that have luckily developed the right kinds of cognitive tools to accurately collect data and track facts about reality. There just happens to be a lucky, accidental interaction where that thing that is me forms beliefs about the natural world that are accurate representations of the world. What demonstrates the reliability of this process is something like the fact that we continue to survive fairly well in our environments.

On naturalistic accounts like this, if I have a perceptual experience of the green trees in my backyard, it is because evolution has endowed me with the right kind of visual processing equipment to receive such perceptual data, and because the trees themselves cause me to have those perceptual experiences. There are only two things: my brain with its bio-chemical reactions, and my environment. In short, the natural world triggers functions of my brain, which then cause me to have beliefs. However, when it comes to other kinds of true beliefs, for example like “2 + 2 = 4” or “If Jane is taller than Sally, and Sally taller than Sue, then I know that Jane is taller than Sue,” it seems like naturalistic, proper function theories are inadequate. Naturalistic theories seem riddled with such problems regarding how we know things, or whether the things we know are true, or, if blind evolution is the correct, why true beliefs would actually aid survival, as opposed to false ones.

When it comes to supernaturalistic theories of proper function, no one has done more to develop a rigorous system of how we can have justified (or in his terms, “warranted”) true beliefs grounded in the proper function of our cognitive capacities than Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (perhaps the 20th century philosopher most responsible for the resurgence of Philosophy of Religion as a serious academic discipline). On Plantinga’s “Reformed Epistemology” view, we can have justified, or warranted, beliefs based on the proper functioning of our mental faculties, because those faculties have been designed by a Divine Being, namely God, to function in specified way, and in such an environment, as to produce accurate and true beliefs about not only the physical world, but also the metaphysical and spiritual world. As such we can have true perceptions of physical realities, and also we possess a “sensus divinitatus” that gives us some true beliefs about the spiritual realm, and even God.

Epistemic Options for Christian Apologetics

For the purpose of Christian Apologetics, the question that lies before the defender of orthodox Christian claims is to what extent he feels we must justify our true beliefs, and, how he thinks we should go about demonstrating that justification. There are essentially two camps when it comes to religious epistemology, that of the Plantingian sort, which suggests justification is external to the believer, and grounded primarily in the process of belief formation; and internalism, which suggests that justification is accessible to the believer, and must be grounded in personal reasons for believing. On internalist views, without good reasons that the believer herself is also aware of, there is no justification to believe any proposition of the Christian faith.

On the first view, beliefs cannot really be justified through arguments or evidence. Justification comes through the witness of the Holy Spirit, as He awakens our sensus divinitatus or “sense of the divine,” which itself has been put there by the Divine Architect. Here we find ourselves believing true things, because the process of God enlightening us to reality is a reliable process. This epistemological view is best suited to presuppositional apologetics, which suggests that arguments and evidence are ill-suited to bringing the skeptic to belief in God, because reason itself is, due to sin, a deficient and faulty mechanism if God exists, and a totally unreliable process if He does not. There must be a God, if we are to think at all that we are able to reason properly. Thus, we should start with God, and only then can we talk about what reason is capable of doing for us, and the justification of our beliefs. Arguments and evidence can be brought in later to bolster confidence in Christian belief, but ultimately what matters is the process of belief formation.

This is to be contrasted with the other, somewhat more common, mode of religious epistemology, which tends to see justification as something internal to the individual, and grounded in that person’s reasons for believing a particular claim. As such, internalists, who tend also to be foundationalists, will suggest that evidence and arguments are the better way for an individual to have justified, true beliefs. Here reason is certainly damaged, but God has allowed men to be able to have a sort of “natural light of reason” as part of his common grace. And that natural reason can be drawn to God through rational argumentation and a fair presentation of the evidence. This epistemological view is best suited toward evidential (or classical) Apologetics, which places a strong emphasis on deductive and inductive arguments for certain Christian claims, e.g. the Resurrection of Jesus.

Epistemology: Conclusion

In conclusion, there are options for Christian apologists when it comes to epistemological theories about knowledge, but, for the most part we would want to adopt minimally some version of the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Even if some kind of Post-modernistic thinking that takes into account the role of personal experience in one’s ability to reason about the world is necessary to work into our epistemology, we should not goes as far as to believe we must throw out truth claims because of the interpretive facet of the human mind.

In the next post we will look a the third area of Philosophical Apologetics: Ethics.