Image: Van Huyssteen's Postfoundational Dream, copyright © 2021 by David M. Hodges, piouseye.com. Illustration created by combining, modifying, adding to, and subtracting from images of the Le Château des Pyrénées (1959) by René Magritte (1898-1967) and scholar-theologian J. Wentzel van Huysteen. Used in accord with Fair Use for illustrative purposes, the source images are believed likely to be in the public domain.

👁 Most recently revised on 28 January 2021 by Pious Eye (David M. Hodges) 👁


Backstory ˅

I prepared this paper for an independent study at Bethel Seminary San Diego, where I earned an MA in Theological Studies, in March 2009. A branch campus of Bethel Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Bethel Seminary San Diego closed in 2019. The Saint Paul campus now maintains all records for San Diego alumni. Most San Diego professors who have not retired or moved away are now teaching at Pacific Theological Seminary, which welcomes your donations. In October 2019, a mere decade after completing the paper, I posted a copy to Academia, a site that I, having abandoned hope of a career in academia, probably have no good reason to be using. But, then, since when do I need a good reason for posting something online? I prepared this Web version in January 2021. In accord with the Pious Eye site’s conventions, however, this Web version is being posted with the paper’s original completion date of March 2009.

As it happened, my faculty supervisor for this independent study was one of the modern, scholarly evangelicals who, convinced that the theory of evolution is a scientific fact to which Christians must adapt rather than, as I believe it to be, a philosophical dead-end grown out of unbelieving scientists’ rejection of biblical presuppositions—that is, out of their selective rejection of those biblical presuppositions not so obviously essential to science as, say, the universality (in space) and fixity (over time) of natural laws. This had led him to an interest in the work of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen. Since that scholar’s work seemed relevant to my interest in epistemology and the proper relationship of faith and reason, I decided to structure my independent study to include review of one of van Huyssteen’s key works.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I am a Bible-believing biblical creationist of the Christian presuppositionalist variety often, though not invariably,[1] represented by Answers in Genesis. I’ve been disappointed to see that ministry switching to the English Standard Version (ESV) in many of its presentations, but the ministry remains an invaluable resource. I found its video series on “The New History of the Human Race” particularly enlightening. In that series, a scientific reconstruction of human history that presupposes the truth of the Bible turns into a fairly persuasive evidential case for the biblical, and against the secular, account of history.

Concerning the Official Title and Subtitle, More to Come, and Post Contents ˅

I don’t know if my title and subtitle were influenced by all the Puritan works I was reading at the time (you know, those books with titles and subtitles that fill entire pages), but the title and subtitle I assigned to this particular paper were as follows: “What Has Evangelicalism to Do with Postfoundationalism? A Selective Analysis of van Huyssteen’s The Shaping of Rationality, with Reference to Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and Select Secondary Sources.” I titled the independent study that produced this paper “Issues in Epistemology (Faith & Reason 2),” so you can expect materials from the prequel “Faith & Reason [1]” course (with a different supervisor) to show up here on the Pious Eye site sooner or later. Though this course might only have produced the one capstone paper, I believe the prequel course took a different approach, producing more but less integrative papers (that is, papers that closely analyzed the subject texts rather than combining the analysis of them into a single work). Stay tuned.[2]

This post includes the following: the preceding backstory and remarks on the paper’s title and subtitle, and on likely future posts; this listing of the post’s contents; an introduction; a sketch of postfoundationalist or post-critical epistemology as found in the work of Van Huyssteen and Polanyi; discussion of two aspects of Van Huyssteen’s and Polanyi’s use of this epistemology that make it seem incompatible with, and so not profitably employed by, the most conservative evangelicals, namely, embrace of the theory of evolution as scientific fact and an attitude toward scriptural authority that no Bible believer could accept. Closing remarks, an annotated bibliography of course readings (and other items cited in the paper), and footnoted references and remarks follow.

Introduction ^

Let’s begin with a historical caricature to get us situated.[3] For the medieval mind, authority resided in the inherited apostolic authority of the Church hierarchy, keeper and authoritative interpreter of God’s written revelation, Scripture, and of an unwritten revelation passed down and elaborated (with divine sanction) over time. The Reformed mind saw Scripture, kept “pure” by God’s sovereign preservation,[4] as the sole ultimate authority by which church hierarchy, traditional interpretation, and all claims to human knowledge must be tested. With the Enlightenment, the modern mind made autonomous human thinkers supreme, presuming them capable of the same unbiased, supremely detached, perfectly objective (a-hermeneutical) rationality previously attributed to God. Humans, having grounded reasoning on indubitable first principles, could trust themselves, as thinking individuals, given sufficient methodological refinement, to rightly interpret all evidence (all experience) and so to stand in judgment over Scripture, Church tradition and hierarchy, and all claims to knowledge. So did individual human rationality reach its highest claim to autonomy, modern thinkers now free to sit in the temple of God showing themselves (through feats of perfected reason) that they were God (2 Thessalonians 2:4).

Alas, critical rationality, operating thus free from all authority claims divine or human, could not then help but turn its all-doubting gaze on its own first principles—and, in the end, find these “foundations” an authority no less easy to overthrow than the revelatory and traditional authorities that preceded it.[5] Autonomous, modern reason proved a universal solvent, and a self-consuming one. So began the rise of the postmodern mind, a still inchoate entity now radically relativistic and nihilistic, now seeking refuge in community consensus or cultural traditions, now grasping again for sure modern foundations, now fleeing back “fideistically” to pre-modern (pre-critical[6]) thought patterns, medieval or Reformed.

Enter J. Wentzel van Huyssteen and his The Shaping of Rationality,[7] selective analysis of which will form the core and determine the flow of this paper. Enter also, and earlier—at a time, in fact, when most thinkers still held fast the modern faith—Michael Polanyi, whose Personal Knowledge, in many ways presaging van Huyssteen’s approach in The Shaping,[8] references to which will supplement our analysis, as will occasional reference to secondary sources. Each of these thinkers proposes ways to adjust our epistemology so that we avoid retreat into the failed absolutism of the modern mind without succumbing to the subjectivism, relativism, and even nihilism that characterizes aspects of the postmodern mind (for example, most if not all applications of nonfoundationalism).

In what follows, I will first present a general overview of van Huyssteen’s epistemology, noting its consonance with Polanyi’s approach and considering whether it is an approach conservative evangelicals, coming from (and without abandoning) a presuppositionally Christian perspective (faithful and consistent with its own truth claims), could utilize. My overview will be kept to the general principles of van Huyssteen’s (and of Polanyi’s) approach and will avoid delving into the approach’s intellectual genealogy (influences, sources, dialog partners). After completing this overview, I will, in separate sections, address two aspects of van Huyssteen’s “postfoundational” epistemology, and of Polanyi’s “post-critical” epistemology, that seem the greatest obstacles to use of their thought by the most conservative evangelicals. I do this because I believe both The Shaping and Personal Knowledge, as rigorous reflections on the full epistemological implications of human finitude and temporality, contain insights even the most conservative among us (even those of us so conservative as to be pejoratively, if inaccurately, labeled “fundamentalists” by van Huyssteen[9]) might profit from—provided certain “stumbling block” issues can be dealt with. These issues are (1) the theory of evolution, of which both van Huyssteen and Polanyi seem quite enamored (though neither embraces the reductively materialistic reading of the theory preferred by atheists of modern stripe); and (2) biblical authority, which neither embraces in a way acceptable to the most conservative evangelicals. As I address each of these issues, I will suggest (if possible) how van Huyssteen’s or Polanyi’s approaches might be creatively reframed to permit faith-consistent use by the most conservative evangelicals.[10]

Postfoundationalist/Post-Critical Epistemology: A Sketch ^

Epistemology concerns how we may be justified in our knowledge claims, that is, how we may commit (or remain committed) to beliefs and opinions in a praiseworthy, or at least not blameworthy, manner. For van Huyssteen and Polanyi, as for many epistemologists, the test of whether one’s commitments are justified is whether one holds to them rationally. Thus, the central question their epistemologies seek to answer is, what epistemic practices are and are not rational for any given individual? Van Huyssteen offers this reflection:

In the absence of…modernist rules, metanarratives, or transcendental standards of rationality, each of us is left with only one viable option: in assessing what rationality is, I must assess it as I see it, from where I stand. As a human being with a distinct self-awareness, and a very specific quest for intelligibility, I can step into the reality of communicative praxis only from where I stand, and begin any intersubjective conversation only by appealing to my rationality….Thus not only rationality and context, but also rationality and strong personal commitments inextricably go together. And as long as I participate in a rationally conscientious way in the back and forth of the feedback process that makes up our communal discourse, I am rationally justified in holding on to my commitments and strong convictions. (SR 152)

Van Huyssteen makes his starting point the inescapable finitude and temporality of the individual, and the cultural embeddedness that go with being thus bound to a specific place and time. If one were to attempt to do otherwise, in the hope of one day achieving a perfectly objective and detached “God’s eye view” rationality, all one could in fact achieve is solipsistic paralysis, having refused the sole means available to finite beings for actively engaging their surroundings, namely, responsible commitment to beliefs which, because unavoidably based on a limited sampling of data biased by one’s context in unknown ways, might be wrong. Polanyi expresses similar thoughts:

This then is our liberation from objectivism: to realize that we can voice our ultimate convictions only from within our convictions—from within the whole system of acceptances that are logically prior to any particular assertion of our own…. (PK 267)

We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework. (PK 266)

As a finite being finding oneself “incarnated” in (finding oneself “indwelling”[11]) a specific time and place, socialized in a specific culture, and further and continuously being re-socialized through the sum of one’s community affiliations and interactions, one must do two things to qualify as rational: (1) to the best of one’s ability, behave in accord with the dictates of rationality as, on the basis of all one’s experience and training to date, one understands those dictates; and (2) interact in good faith with those holding other viewpoints, ensuring one’s own commitments are not maintained simply because they are never challenged. God doubtless has access to a rationality that cannot err, permitting flawless deduction from indubitable first principles, and infallible inductions from exhaustive collections of data. (Of course, his omniscience may make exercise of this perfect rationality unnecessary.) We non-gods, in contrast, must settle for something less than perfection. We can only seek to make the most responsible judgments we’re able to make, given the evidence and thinking ability at our disposal, then keep the commitments we make on the basis of these judgments open to criticism so that, if we turn out to be wrong, the chances our error will be revealed to us are increased.

Van Huyssteen and Polanyi both reject the modern mind’s claim to potentially infallible rationality (foundationalism, objectivism, scientism).[12] At the same time, neither embraces mere subjectivism, where every commitment is seen as arbitrary and so equally responsible or irresponsible (nonfoundationalism, relativism, extreme deconstructive or “anti-reason” postmodernism). For each, the key is a pragmatic faith in the not always articulable, and always confessedly fallible, heuristic abilities of humans (the “rich resources of rationality” [SR, repeated throughout]), which abilities are the common source of all humans’ efforts to understand and interact with their environments, whether that means their physical, social-cultural, intellectual, or emotional environments—or even their spiritual environments, should it be the case that spiritual or religious experiences (or experiences of “transcendence”) are something more than intellectual, emotional, and social-cultural.

Now, it is true that comparison of van Huyssteen’s and Polanyi’s thought indicates a difference in tone. Van Huyssteen places great emphasis on the need to continue applying the critical tools of modernity to our reasonings, that we might avoid arbitrariness and might discern and correct inevitable errors, though no longer applying these tools in the perfectionist modern manner that postmodern thinkers have so effectively shown makes any knowledge or commitment unsustainable. (As Polanyi nicely put it before the official onset of the postmodern: “Innocently, we had trusted we could be relieved of all personal responsibility for our beliefs by objective criteria of validity—and our own critical powers have shattered this hope.” [PK 268]) In contrast to van Huyssteen’s emphasis, Polanyi at one point identifies his approach as an “invitation to dogmatism,” noting that what he wishes to do is “restore to us once more the power for the deliberate holding of unproven beliefs. We should,” he elaborates, “be able to profess now knowingly and openly those beliefs which could be tacitly taken for granted in the days before modern philosophic criticism reached its present incisiveness” (PK 268). “In spite of the difference in emphasis, Polanyi signals that he is not advocating genuine dogmatism when he notes that the “dogmatic orthodoxy” of his “invitation to dogmatism,” unlike objectivism and scientism, “can be kept in check both internally and externally” (same source[13]). Surely the only way to keep one’s “dogmatic” personal commitments “in check” is to apply to them, but in a non-perfectionist way, the very same “critical powers” as, perfectionistically applied, proved universally corrosive. Thus, Polanyi’s “post-critical” epistemology is only post-critical in the sense that it jettisons the perfectionist application of critical reason which characterized the modern mind.

So, in postfoundationalist (and in “post-critical”) perspective, all human efforts to make sense of experience, whether through scientific work, theological reflection, or any other “reasoning strategy,” are seen as outworkings of the same human problem-solving capacity. The strategies differ because the sorts of experience or subject matter they deal with differ, not because one strategy is more or less genuinely rational than another. Thus, interdisciplinary dialog is possible and desirable wherever areas of “convergence” (consideration of the same or related subject matter) occur. One could say that human disciplinary distinctions are themselves just tools for thinking, comparing, and organizing—heuristic devices just like the various reasoning strategies they organize. These divisions are conventional and pragmatic, not “absolute” (not “objective” in the modernist sense). Ultimately, there is just “generic” knowledge and the “generic” pursuit of understanding and intelligibility that produces such knowledge. Thus, the need for interdisciplinarity is not limited to the disciplines of science and theology, as The Shaping’s subtitle might suggest, but between all disciplines when their topics of inquiry converge or overlap. Van Huyssteen’s own words nicely summarize the perspective:

To talk about the shaping of rationality…is to talk about the epistemic quest for optimal understanding and intelligibility, the epistemic skill of responsible judgment; it is further to see the intellectual skill of rational judgment and theory choice as a fallibilist process of progressive problem solving….[that] reach[es] beyond the sciences and already form[s] part of the common sense reasonableness by which we live our daily lives….[T]hese resources of rationality are…shared by different and diverse modes of reflection…. (SR 12)

[Essential to the postfoundationalist notion of rationality is awareness of] the committed nature of all rational thought, and thus the fiduciary rootedness of all rationality. (SR 219)

In Polanyi’s terms, all knowledge is personal knowledge. And such knowledge is always fiduciary and fallibilist: “The principal purpose of this book,” Polanyi writes of Personal Knowledge, “is to achieve a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it might conceivable be false” (PK 214). Such is the shared project of van Huyssteen and Polanyi, though in van Huyssteen’s case with a stronger emphasis upon the need to maintain rational justification of one’s firm beliefs through ongoing critical self-reflection and dialog with those of different opinion.

Thus broadly outlined, the postfoundational/post-critical approach may seem little more than a frank confession of the human condition as finite and fallible, followed by an outworking of the epistemic implications of that condition. From the perspective of human experience, it seems difficult to object to the approach. Is this not in fact how we experience life and how we go about forming beliefs and making rational commitments? Nevertheless, there is something vaguely troubling about a viewpoint that would have someone who, if the Reformed perspective is correct, has been given faith by God, through a divine calling both effectual and irresistible[14]—there is something vaguely troubling about asking such a person to treat his faith commitment as potentially fallible or in any way provisional. If one should achieve, by God’s grace, a settled assurance in faith, can one approach theology as van Huyssteen recommends in the following passage?

In terms of a qualified and pragmatic form of critical realism, it now becomes possible to construct an imaginative approach to theological reflection that begins with ordinary human experience and reflection, explores possible “signals of transcendence” to be found in it, and then moves from there to religious affirmations about the nature of reality. On this view critical realism in theology implies a fallibilist, experiential epistemology…. (SR 219)[15]

I would have to say that the Christians granted faith by God’s grace could never approach their own faith in this way. This may not mean that such Christians can make no use at all of such an approach. What van Huyssteen here proposes is a postfoundationalist version of natural theology. As have the natural theologies of Aquinas and Paley and others, this new formulation of natural theology might prove a worthwhile intellectual exercise in some interactions with non-Christians.

With that I end our sketch of postfoundational/post-critical epistemology. As an honest outworking of the epistemic implications of humans’ non-divine or creaturely status, it seems likely to prove of at least some use to even the most conservative evangelicals. However, certain aspects of both van Huyssteen’s and Polanyi’s approaches make such use problematic. We explore the first of those problematic aspects, evolution, in the next section.

Stumbling Block 1: Evolution ^

Referring to his prior publication, Duet or Duel? Theology and Science in a Postmodern World (London: SCM Press, 1998), van Huyssteen writes: “I argued in this book that theological reflection is not only radically shaped by its social, historical, and cultural embeddedness, but also by the biological roots of human rationality,” further noting that he has “contemporary evolutionary epistemology” in mind when he speaks of rationality’s “biological roots” (SR 4). In order to spare readers the necessity of reading Duet or Duel before The Shaping, he relates the main importance of evolutionary epistemology to his thinking:

…the basic assumption of evolutionary epistemology is that we humans, like all other living beings, result from evolutionary processes and that, consequently, our mental capacities are constrained and shaped by the mechanisms of biological evolution. I accept, at least in a minimalist sense, that all our knowledge, including our scientific and religious knowledge, is grounded in biological evolution. And if human knowledge results from, and is shaped by evolution, then the study of evolution should be of extreme importance for an understanding of the phenomenon of knowledge (same source).

What I find most interesting in this statement is not how van Huyssteen wants to make evolutionary theory central to his theory of knowledge, but how irrelevant the actual past occurrence or non-occurrence of biological evolution turns out to be on close inspection. It is not at all clear that reflection in terms of the (pre-)historically-reconstructive tale of evolutionary origins provides an analysis of human capabilities differing in any necessary way from the analysis that would be provided by an origins-theory-neutral (or even a creationist) reflection on the function and design of the orders of being as they currently exist. Whether the design and function of humans and less complex creatures result from a “natural” process of biological evolution of less complex creatures into more complex ones in real time, or this grand “chain of being” in fact originates in a conceptual evolution “eternally accomplished” in the mind of God, the implications of such things as the comparison of human neuroanatomy with that of lower animals would seem to be the same. However all life originated, the fact is undeniable that the similarities and differences between various life-forms cataloged by evolutionary biologists, from comparisons of DNA to comparisons of organ systems and behavior patterns, do describe real similarities and differences. One’s willingness or unwillingness to “explain” the specifics of these similarities and differences in terms of a “molecules to humans” tale of biological evolution needn’t necessarily affect how one reads (understands the functional importance of) these similarities and differences. “Natural” evolution owing to selective pressure of circumstances, and special creation owing to purposeful divine planning, will not differ in their practical implications for this reading if the divine purpose happens to match what the circumstantial pressure requires. Even dedicated young-earth[16] creationists might incorporate many insights of “evolutionary biology” into their thinking, since most of what this branch of science sets forth concerns comparative analysis of existing and extinct entities, and how the similarities and differences found affect (or might have affected) the function of these entities in their respective environments. Upon reflection, one finds that most of the findings of such comparative analysis can be accepted even if one rejects the “molecules to humans” narrative framework in which these findings are typically presented.

Of course, if one wishes to insist on evolution as a purely chance naturalistic process, the implications change. But the implications in this case would also be destructive to van Huyssteen’s argument in support of theological reflection as a legitimate rational undertaking. As Plantinga persuasively demonstrates, assumption of either purely chance naturalistic origins of human rational capacities, or assumption that the origin of these capacities is simply a mystery, undercuts any legitimate trust in these capacities, at least when they are applied to matters of belief not visible to natural selection, and so irrelevant to naturalistic evolutionary processes.[17] One can therefore be taken aback when van Huyssteen lapses into apparently naturalistic language, as here: “As Nicholas Rescher correctly points out, intelligence naturally arises through evolutionary processes because it provides one very effective means of survival. Rationality, in this broadest sense of the word, can therefore be seen as conducive to human survival, and the explanation for our cognitive resources as fundamentally Darwinian” (SR 131). If our cognitive resources are understood in this way, on what basis should we trust that they can, for instance, discriminate between false and true, or less likely and more likely, religious beliefs?

Let us assume that we have two competing and contradictory religions that do not differ in their practical implications—believers in each find themselves equally comforted in a sometimes tragic world, and both religions set forth essentially the same set of moral principles. Since the effect on survival in each case will be identical, neither belief will have any greater “Darwinian” value. Therefore, there would be no reason to trust our cognitive resources to judge between the two. As well, since the truth or falsity of the religions is irrelevant to their this-worldly, their “natural,” adaptive value, we would also have no reason to trust our belief that any religion is true. We could only trust ourselves to judge it useful. Van Huyssteen’s repeated insistence on emphasizing rationality’s function as “our species’ most distinguishing survival strategy” (239, with parallels throughout the text) thus does nothing to strengthen his case for the rationality of theological reflection, but in fact weakens it. I suspect, however, that van Huyssteen has simply failed to state explicitly in these instances something he needed not only to state but to emphasize with his every reference to the “natural”: that God, if an active presence in the world (as Christian reflection upon religious experience indicates[18]), would in fact be a part of the “natural” influence in “natural selection.” That this is in fact what he means to assert can be discerned from his discussion of Jerome A. Stone’s A Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992) (202–209, 212–14).[19] (This is also my “holistic” impression from the full text of The Shaping.) He seems guilty of imperfect communication, not advocacy of evolution as a purely chance, material process.

Van Huyssteen’s imperfect communication even goes so far as to (seemingly) attribute an obligation to pursue knowledge to humans’ naturalistic origins: “rationality is so closely aligned with human intelligence and with the survival of our species, that the intellectual obligation to understand our worlds and ourselves at an optimal level is shared by all humans” (SR 155, emphasis added). “Nicholas Rescher,” he continues, “thus rightly argued that this imperative to understand and cope is altogether basic for homo sapiens” (same source). Presumably, by “intellectual obligation,” van Huyssteen means a moral obligation to use our intellect in a certain way (such would be the customary reading of “obligation” here). He seems to be asserting that because humans have naturally evolved with a compulsion (an “imperative” or drive) to seek optimal understanding, they are therefore morally obligated to follow the leading of this compulsion. Having a drive equals moral obligation to indulge that drive? Hardly an example of sound moral reasoning. As in the preceding paragraph, van Huyssteen’s framing of his thought in terms of evolution as (pure or extreme, that is, chance-materialist) naturalists describe it, tends to undercut his own arguments. By pointing this out, I’m not claiming that all who use this language prove themselves naturalists in the chance-materialist sense, nor that Rescher (much less van Huyssteen) is such a naturalist. It does seem, however, that most evolutionary terminology now in use has been bequeathed to us by persons of just such bent, and so carries with it a misleading bias in favor of the chance-materialist view. Van Huyssteen might have better set forth his case had he not so uncritically, and without sufficient comment or caveats, adopted the standard terminology.

What all the foregoing seems to indicate is that the only understanding of “evolutionary biology” that does not undercut van Huyssteen’s own arguments is an understanding that does not take chance-materialist naturalism for granted. And, as was indicated in the beginning of this section, such an understanding permits, without loss of essential information, an origins-theory-neutral (or even a creationist) reading of the data (description of similarities and differences, with reflection on the functional implications of same) provided by evolutionary biologists. Acceptance of evolutionary theory, then, does not seem essential to acceptance of van Huyssteen’s arguments. They might well prove worthy of acceptance even to those who hold to a creationist theory of origins.

Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge makes even more extensive use of evolutionary theory than does The Shaping. Much of his discussion of how humans acquire and exercise knowledge progresses by first showing what hints of the mature human ability can be observed in lower life-forms, then tracing out the progressive unfolding or emergence of the full ability in humans (PK 69–77, for example). Like van Huyssteen’s evolutionism, Polanyi’s might also be read from an origins-theory-neutral or creationist perspective without compromising the functional points made. Life-forms lower on the “chain of being” really do manifest capabilities that are evidently less mature or less complete versions of abilities found much more fully manifested in humans. But such comparative realities might as easily be attributed to the parsimonious and hierarchical mind of a divine designer as to the mindless working of natural processes.[20] Whether or not one life-form evolved from another biologically, the instructive value of comparisons between them remains uncompromised.

Polanyi’s inclination, it should also be noted, is to see evolution as purposeful, as manifesting an ordering principle and progressive impulse, so that he more than once expresses skepticism about chance, materialist understandings of the process. He is thus less subject to the difficulties van Huyssteen’s terminology sometimes risks. Personal Knowledge’s final two chapters, I note, are centrally concerned with evolution, and with a vision of things enmeshed in and expanding upon evolutionary theory (347–405). Polanyi’s “expansion upon” evolutionary theory (at least this particular expansion upon it[21]) is a tracing of the same principles of progression traced in biological development to the further progression seen in the “ultra-biology” of human pursuit of knowledge through responsible commitment. He interestingly re-visions evolution as a (or uses evolution as the basis for a metaphorical description of) progression from lower to higher orders of commitment. “Commitment,” he writes, “may…be graded by steps of increasing consciousness; namely, from primordial, vegetative commitment of a centre of being, function and growth, to primitive commitment of the active-perceptive centre, and hence further again, to responsible commitments of the consciously deliberating person” (363). While this comparison of different orders of life may feel a bit stranger than the biological comparisons already mentioned, profit from it no more requires commitment to “real world” evolutionism than did the former.

Before moving on to the next stumbling block, I should note that most thinkers who draw upon van Huyssteen do seem to believe acceptance of evolutionism a necessity. In this, they seem to have missed certain implications of the postfoundationalist perspective. Perhaps even van Huyssteen himself has missed them. Rather than attempt to explain these implications in the abstract, I’ll consider one example of “implication missing” as exemplifying the problem. Seeking to correct what he thinks a potential for misunderstanding of a passage where van Huyssteen quotes Larry Laudan (SR 172), Jerome Stone discusses the broader context of the Laudan passage van Huyssteen quotes, then relates what he “trust[s] from van Huyssteen’s total corpus” is the correct understanding of van Huyssteen’s perspective. He writes: “There is no duel between science and religion at the level of scientific theory. There should be a duet at the level of worldview. This allows for a robust, if chastened, doctrine of creation as a voice in the chorus. It disallows creationist pseudo-science and its political backing.”[22] Setting aside the fact that creationists level the same charge of “political backing” against evolutionists (with somewhat greater credibility given the considerably greater representation proponents of evolution have in scientific, educational, and governmental institutions), this statement is still problematic. Whether or not van Huyssteen would endorse Stone’s statement, it strikes me as inconsistent with some of the implications of van Huyssteen’s thought already discussed. For instance, the pejorative label “pseudo-science” seems an artifact of the rigid disciplinary distinctions of modernity. Of course, Polanyi grants any community of scientists specializing in a particular field or discipline the right to choose which questions it will and will not consider, it being impractical and in fact impossible to consider every issue or anomaly anyone wishes to raise, and various unspecifiable but indispensable scientific “gifts” possessed by those most accomplished in the work of a discipline inclining them to “simply prefer” to investigate (to be intellectually passionate about investigating) certain questions rather than others. Doubtless van Huyssteen would grant the same freedom. But all this really warrants is the identification of the work of one or another creationist scientist as not addressing a question suitable to a specific scientific specialty or discipline. For instance, work by a creationist geologists might be judged in peer review to be addressed to questions the community of geologists is not currently considering, and so unsuitable for publication in one of that community’s journals. Nothing in this forbids creationist geologist from then (in order to follow the leading of their intellectual passions) creating a new discipline, creationist geology (complete with its own journals), to consider questions non-creationist geology chooses not to consider. This is in fact the strategy creationist scientists have followed. In a postfoundationalist order, all are free to pursue optimal understanding and intelligibility as their own heuristic strivings and intellectual passions, uniquely influenced by their personal contexts, incline them to do. In this new order, the sole duty of rationality is to make a good faith effort to pursue optimal understanding, and to interact with those of differing opinion, in an intellectually honest way. Creationists profess this is just what they are trying to do, and I think survey of the actual work being done by scientists who are creationists confirms this. (That “popular” creationist works may not meet this requirement hardly justifies condemnation of creationists in general. After all, how would non-creationist science fare if judged by the work of some of its popularizers?) Dissent, even that of a lone visionary with no present community sharing his perspective, is sacrosanct in the postfoundationalist context (SR 151).[23] Whatever Stone, or even van Huyssteen, may wish to claim, this right of dissent must include creationists.

Stumbling Block 2: Biblical Authority ^

Neither van Huyssteen nor Polanyi adopts a view of biblical authority compatible with the faith commitment of conservative evangelicals. In his brief review of The Shaping, P. Mark Achtemeier (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa) offers these relevant observations:

Van Huyssteen carries on a ferocious polemic against classical understandings of Christian faith as grounded in unique, divine revelation. His vehement insistence on banishing from theology every appeal to data that is not “public” will be off-putting to readers who take Christian tradition seriously, and at times makes the book feel like the sort of hegemonic modernist metanarrative the author allegedly deplores.[24]

That Achtemeier—who in this review does not make reference to the biblical inerrancy/infallibility of conservative evangelicals, but only to belief that Christian faith has a revelatory basis unique among religions and that Christian tradition possesses some authority worth taking seriously—should be so taken aback by van Huyssteen’s tone does not bode well for conservative evangelical reception of the work. Personally, however, I would not characterize van Huyssteen’s rhetoric as “ferocious polemic” (it doesn’t feel quite that strong to me). Nor am I certain van Huyssteen really insists on “banishing from theology every appeal to data that is not ‘public.’” Rather, it seems to me that van Huyssteen is insisting on the somewhat less extreme position that non-public criteria not be set forth as “proof” during dialog between persons from different disciplines, different faiths, and different discourse communities. Consider, for instance, this statement: “Faith—as the ‘heart’ of religion—implies total commitment to the objects of one’s belief. In the context of rational argumentation, however, faith does not make [that is, cannot be set forth persuasively as demonstrating] the object of faith more probable” (SR 262). Thus setting forth one’s own faith as proof in dialog with someone of another faith would, in van Huyssteen’s view, amount to “the fideist misconstrual where religious faith is seen as evidence for the truth of religious or theological propositions” (same source). One may or may not agree with van Huyssteen here, but it seems to me that what he calls for is nothing more extreme than the call of many conservative evangelical apologists to reason with unbelievers on the basis of premises and evidence believers and unbelievers hold in common (seeking to persuade on the basis of a “common ground” of “public” evidence and shared principles of rationality).

It may be true that van Huyssteen fails to draw a sharp distinction between how one should do theology during interdisciplinary or inter-community dialog and how one should do theology within one’s community of faith, making Achtemeier’s misconstrual understandable. It may even be that van Huyssteen has in fact been so influenced by currents of contemporary thought that he does lean toward just the bias Achtemeier suspects, and in fact would oppose any distinction between theological practice in the two contexts, calling for all theology to be public theology. It is possible, however, to read van Huyssteen’s proposals vis-à-vis the practice of theology in the public (interdisciplinary, inter-communal) sphere as solely concerning how one may and may not go about setting forth one’s views for consideration in that sphere. In other words, van Huyssteen may be read as merely setting forth conventions for effective intercultural communication (where disciplinary and faith communities are the cultures involved). Or, even if one reads him as setting forth far more general rules for conducting theology, one might still extract principles for inter-communal dialog from him, even as one rejects his more general rules.

Might the same be true of van Huyssteen’s statements concerning biblical authority? To answer this, let’s first survey some of these statements. Note first how he relates his definition of foundationalism to views of biblical authority:

Foundationalism [is] the powerful thesis that our beliefs can indeed be warranted or justified by appealing to some item of knowledge that is self-evident or beyond doubt….that there is a privileged class of “aristocratic” beliefs…which as such are intrinsically credible and which are able, therefore, to serve as ultimate terminating points for chains of justification. These basic “givens” could be anything from sense data to universals, essences, experience (also religious experience), and, in the case of theology, certain notions of divine revelation….In theology, foundationalism most often implies biblical literalism, or the positing of religious experience as an unmediated and unique dimension of experience, or, on a more sophisticated theoretical level, a self-authenticating “positivism of revelation” which ultimately isolates theology from other reasoning strategies because it denies the crucial role of interpreted religious experience in theological reflection. (SR 62–63)

Given that no one genuinely advocates “literalism” in biblical interpretation (no one asserts that Christ is really a door or a gate or a lamb, for instance, everyone granting the reality of metaphor in human communication), what van Huyssteen must mean by “biblical literalism” here is the conservative evangelical belief that every passage of Scripture has a single meaning, what might be called its “literal” meaning (for example, the “literal” meaning of the statement that Christ is “the door” is that it is through his mediation alone, not through any other “door,” that we pass from spiritual death into spiritual life), discernible through careful application of historical-grammatical hermeneutics (attending to historical and cultural context, genre, literary context, and so on), with due attendance to the analogy of faith (all of Scripture taken as a unity, the more clear passages used to guide interpretation of the less clear). Chapter one of the Westminster Confession of Faith might be considered a good example of such “biblical literalism,” though the habit of the time was to place somewhat greater emphasis on the analogy of faith than upon historical-grammatical hermeneutics and the exegesis of specific passages. (So it was that the Song of Solomon was generally interpreted as symbolic of Christ’s relationship with his Church. So also was systematic or dogmatic theology customarily elevated over biblical theology.) It may additionally be the case that van Huyssteen uses “biblical literalism” as a code phrase for advocacy of the infallibility and absolute authority of all of Scripture (that is, verbal plenary inspiration), a viewpoint held by the same conservative evangelicals who advocate the hermeneutical approach already mentioned.

Later in the text, van Huyssteen refers to “the sharp and unfortunate distinction often drawn between accepting results on a rational basis and accepting results on the basis of experience alone. Implied in this distinction,” he notes, “is the conviction that conclusions accepted on the basis of experience do not have the universality or necessity that characterizes reasonable results” (SR 121). This distinction is characteristic of the “standard or classical model of scientific rationality,” where it is asserted that “a decision, a judgment, or a belief becomes rational only when it is based on an evaluation of relevant scientific evidence through the application of appropriate rules” (120). (This classical model is the false ideal of objectivity, the dream of “absolute detachment” free of personal commitment, that Polanyi criticizes, seeing Laplace as an important paradigm case of such errant “objectivism” [PK 139–142].) One can imagine rephrasing van Huyssteen’s description of what the classical model asserts this way: “a decision, judgment, or belief about [theological truth or the meaning of Scripture] becomes rational only when it is based on an evaluation of relevant [scriptural] evidence through the application of appropriate rules [of historical-grammatical interpretation].” Thus he writes: “The elevation by some theologians of supernaturalist and self-authenticating concepts of revelation above and beyond the domain of religious experience can certainly be traced to this unfortunate distinction” (121). Van Huyssteen’s phrasing here is interesting. He perceives theologians, presumably including conservative evangelicals holding to “biblical literalism” (or, perhaps, to a “positivism of [written] revelation”), as elevating, not supernatural and self-authenticating (written) revelation itself, but concepts of such revelation, above religious experience. Though this odd phrasing might easily be missed, I think it essential to van Huyssteen’s meaning. (He is also careful to adopt the same sort of wording elsewhere in the text when he refers to this topic [for example, SR 196, “notions of”].)

Given his carefully odd phrasing, it seems possible that van Huyssteen means neither to affirm nor deny that Scripture is “supernatural and self-authenticating revelation,” this ontological question being beside his epistemological point. (What Achtemeier perceived as a polemical tone may well indicate that van Huyssteen feels a certain hostility toward biblical inerrantism or inerrantists, and that this has biased his expression in a misleading way. This does not mean, however, that van Huyssteen intends in The Shaping to address the question of Scripture’s ontological nature as inerrant or otherwise.) A repeated refrain throughout The Shaping is that “we relate to our world only through the mediation of interpreted experience” (224–25). As Polanyi might put it, our experience of the world comes to us (to our conscious awareness) already interpreted in terms of a system of implicit beliefs or understandings, some of which we may simply be unable to articulate. These implicit interpreters may be biological or cultural in origin, or may simply be the product of our active and committed efforts to understand, negotiate, and influence our environment (for example, perceptual habits). If we “relate to our world only through the mediation of interpreted experience,” then presumably we relate to (phenomenally experience) any revelation present in the world, even if noumenally or “in itself” supernatural and self-authenticating, not directly, but “through the mediation of interpreted experience.” Van Huyssteen’s perspective seems to be that, regardless of the nature of Scripture in itself, humans who receive it, read it, and interpret it, at best “see through a glass darkly,” their finitude, and the inevitable fallibility of judgment that goes with it (a finite, temporal being always has only a limited, context-dependent sampling of potentially relevant experiences to draw upon), makes their experience of Scripture invariably something other than inerrant, something other than supernatural and self-authenticating.

One possible flaw in this perspective is the fact that, though potential individual experiences are essentially limitless, making each individual’s limited experience embedded in one or another context an insufficient sampling for universalized certitude, Scripture itself presents us with a finite body of data. If Scripture is a semantic unity, as at least the conservative evangelical perspective holds, then the agreement of all of its parts, combined with the necessity that every one of those parts has some single meaning (again, granting the conservative evangelical perspective on Scripture), should place definite constraints on its interpretation—constraints applicable no matter what the experiential background and cultural embeddedness of any individual seeking to interpret it. A second possible flaw is that illumination is disregarded. When conservative evangelicals speak of Scripture as self-authenticating, what they really mean is God-authenticated.[25] God is thought always present with his Word, validating its claim to divine origin and authority and guiding those who, in faith, apply themselves to its study, toward a truer and truer understanding of its meaning. Van Huyssteen, of course, would note that even if this is true—and, in the public realm at least, he would not allow for one to simply assert its truth—illumination is necessarily mediated to us through (as) humanly interpreted experience. We experience ourselves coming to understand with greater and greater specificity its message, and coming to believe with greater and greater certainty that its message is true.

This creates an interesting dilemma. If conservative evangelicals are going to be true to their faith commitment, if they are going to act as their “religious experience” of encounter with inerrant verbal revelation in the presence of divine illumination demands, they don’t seem free to doubt these experiences. In fact, if the Reformed perspective is correct, they will (at some point) find the call to fully credit these experiences irresistible—genuine doubt will (as God wills) prove impossible, even should they be persuaded by a van Huyssteen that such doubt is required given the inevitable fallibilism of all human judgments, including faith commitments. How, then, are they to follow van Huyssteen’s call to “move beyond the kind of fideism where our own unique experiences and appropriate explanations are never challenged, and the need for transcommunal conversation is never taken seriously”? (286) Can persons with a God-given absolute assurance in faith (as some, though certainly not all, the regenerate do possess) conduct themselves in the interdisciplinary/transcommunal (that is, public) realm in a way of which van Huyssteen could approve? If postfoundationalist rationality is treated as solely a rule concerning permitted (or recommended) rhetorical conduct in certain transcommunal encounters, perhaps. Otherwise, it seems not.

Polanyi’s lengthiest discussion of Christian faith and the Bible spans only a small number of pages (PK 279–286). Polanyi’s approach to theology, which he at one point likens to the “progressive Protestant theology” of Paul Tillich (PK 783 n1), seems quite like van Huyssteen’s understanding of theology as “reflection upon religious experience.” He writes: “theology pursued as an axiomatization of the Christian faith has an important analytic task. Though its results can be understood only by practicing Christians, it can greatly help them understand what they are practicing” (PK 282). And again: “The extensive dogmatic framework of Christianity arose from ingenious efforts, sustained through many centuries, to axiomatize the faith already practiced by Christians….[T]he specification of these beliefs is much more colourful than are the axioms of arithmetic or the premisses of natural science. But they belong to the same class of statements, performing kindred fiduciary functions” (286). Like van Huyssteen, Polanyi’s focus seems much more upon religious experience and communal praxis than upon the status of Scripture. When noting his affinities with Tillich, he does however quote this telling statement by Tillich: “Scientific and historical criticism…cannot dissolve [revelation], for revelation belongs to a [different] dimension of reality….It is independent of what science and history say about the conditions in which it appears; and it cannot make science and history dependent on itself. No conflict between different dimensions of reality is possible” (PK 283 n1).[26] In quoting this passage, Polanyi seems to be adopting the approach which identifies all religious language, and so all scriptural language, as metaphorical rather than literal, and so not describing the this-dimensional (historical and scientific) realities it often seems to describe. (Or, at least, the approach relegates to metaphorical function all religious or scriptural language that contradicts currently dominant historical or scientific theories.) This approach seems wholly incompatible with conservative evangelical faith. As the approach is peripheral, even irrelevant, to Polanyi’s epistemology, our best strategy might be simply to ignore it and judge Polanyi’s epistemology without reference to his thoughts on biblical authority.

Closing Remarks ^

In this paper, I have looked centrally at the thought of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen as found in his book, The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science. Where appropriate, I have also noted points of agreement (and some difference in emphasis) between van Huyssteen’s thought as found in this text and Michael Polanyi’s thought as found in his book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. The problem my own intellectual passion and heuristic impulse has inclined me to focus on is the question of whether, and how, a conservative evangelical of my particular type (prone to a pre-critical Reformed outlook and an uncompromising scriptural inerrantism) might make some profitable use of the postfoundationalism of van Huyssteen and the post-critical epistemology of Polanyi. I have found that these approaches provide helpful insights on the epistemic implications of human finitude and temporality, though I have been reluctant to apply these insights to biblical authority in the way van Huyssteen does. I have also found that van Huyssteen’s proposals for conduct of theology in the public sphere, as an experiential and fallibilist exercise, might prove of some utility provided this public “conversational” theology is carefully separated from the “faithful” theology which is conducted within the believing community and takes full faith in infallible Scripture as its starting point. Finally, I have discovered that, through a creative reframing of data, most “findings” of evolutionary biology, which are of notable importance to both van Huyssteen’s and Polanyi’s thought, can be found acceptable even as one rejects (or simply chooses not to endorse) evolutionism itself.

Bibliography (Course Readings Annotated) ^

Achtemeier, P. Mark. Review of The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen. Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology, volume 54, number 3. July 2000. 334.

A one-page review by Mark P. Achtemeier of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.

Haught, John F. Review of The Shaping of Rationality: Towards Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen. Theological Studies, volume 61, number 2. June 2000. 381–383.

A brief but insightful review by Georgetown University professor John F. Haught. Though I noticed the similarity between van Huyssteen’s and Polanyi’s thought before reading this review, Haught’s noting of this similarity provided confirmation that my impression was not a false one.

Jha, Stefania Ruzsits. Reconsidering Michael Polanyi’s Philosophy. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. 26–122, 262–283 (notes).

I read select chapters from this book deemed most relevant to my study of Personal Knowledge, or else just of interest. Jha’s discussion of Polanyi’s work as drawing upon, and critically adapting, Kant’s thought proved particularly interesting reading. This text is also noteworthy for Jha’s extensive reference to Polanyi’s correspondence, notes, and other materials not (to my knowledge) conveniently available to the general public.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. (Not a course reading, but cited in paper.)

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958; corrected edition, 1962. 428+xiv pages.

One of the two main course readings and primary sources for this paper. A lengthy setting forth of Polanyi’s epistemology, in a style likened by some to that of Continental philosophers. The book is rich with comparisons between different fields of endeavor and illustrates its points with examples from a remarkable range of scientific fields. Delightful reading for “science geeks” patient with an author building slowly to a conclusion; perhaps not so delightful for those looking for quick and clear expression of Polanyi’s main points. (I enjoyed the reading, suggesting I am more in the patient “science geek” category.)

Prosch, Harry. Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986. 49–120, 300–307 (notes).

Additional materials read as I sought to understand Personal Knowledge. This book helpfully traces the development of Polanyi’s key ideas over the course of his career. Though his key epistemological ideas were all present at least implicitly in Personal Knowledge, seeing how they would be more clearly and explicitly set forth (and in some cases revised) in later work proved helpful. An interesting note in this work (301–302 n3) relates an anecdote that seems to disprove the “classical conditioning” explanation of Pavlov’s experiments with salivating dogs. This story relates how, when unchained and allowed to interact with their environment, the dog subjects behaved in a way suggesting expectation and purpose, not stimulus substitution through passive association.

Stone, Jerome A. “Commentary and Response: J. Wentzel van Huyssteen: Refiguring Rationality in the Postmodern Age.” Zygon, volume 32, number 2 (June 2000). 415–426.

An extended review of van Huyssteen’s thought, centrally focused on The Shaping of Rationality, by Jerome A. Stone, a self-identified “religious naturalist” and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at William Rainey Harper College, Palatine, IL. Had I discovered this review before completing my reading of The Shaping, it might have served as a helpful introduction. I did find it of some help even read belatedly, however. One point of criticism is that I believe Stone mischaracterizes the process of “standardization” that van Huyssteen draws from Joseph Rouse. He identifies it as a process “whereby local knowledge is decontextualized” as a “tool designed for a specific task is changed into a general-purpose piece of equipment” (417). I think it would be truer to van Huyssteen’s thinking to say that “standardization” involves direct translation of the local knowledge of one context into a second context, without the knowledge ever entering a “decontextualized” state (the very possibility of such a state being a fantasy of modernism). This concept seems analogous to the Christian missiological concept of contextualization, as well as to issues of translation of written texts from one culture into a form understandable to greatly differing target cultures.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, volume 1. London: 1953. Quoted by Polanyi. (Not a course reading, but cited in paper.)

Van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. 303+xi pages.

One of two main course readings and primary sources for this paper. Though I have presented van Huyssteen’s thought in fairly simple outline above, his postfoundationalist rationality is crafted through interaction with a large assortment of contemporary (or near-contemporary) thinkers in philosophy of science and philosophical theology. If useful for no other purpose, the book would be worth reading just to get a sense of the contemporary status of “mainstream” theological reflection in our postmodern context. Such topics of current interest as nonfoundationalism, narrative theology, and (briefly) Radical Orthodoxy are covered. Van Huyssteen’s special interest is in relating theological reflection to philosophy of science, as he sees science as a noteworthy (though not a unique or specially privileged) example of the working of human rationality at its most “manicured.” Van Huyssteen’s tendency to repeat key ideas and phrases throughout the text, though it might prove annoying in a book on less complex subject matter, actually proved helpful in this case.

Westminster Confession of Faith [electronic document]. Bible Works 6.0 Software. (Not a course reading, but cited in paper)

Witmer, Andrew, writer and editor. Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing: The Life and Thought of Michael Polanyi. Powhatan, VA: Mars Hill Audio, 1999. Produced by Ken Myers, co-hosted by Kate Burke and Ken Myers. Two sound cassettes.

An introduction to Polanyi from a Christian perspective. Though it doesn’t contain any “advanced” material, its overview of Polanyi’s life and work helped me “find my bearings” as I began my study.

Notes and Remarks ^

[1] As evidences more easily used to promote Christianity than to oppose it have become better known, such as through deeper awareness of the irreducible complexity of even the simplest living cells and wider acceptance by honest investigators that the case for Jesus’s resurrection is historically (aka forensically) pretty strong, even Christians who understand the presuppositional case, people who know that the opponents of the Christian faith, were they thinking in a way consistent with their professed belief system (normally called their “worldview,” though this terms has become rather too popular and variously used to serve the purpose it originally did in presuppositional apologetics)—Well, even such presuppositionally aware Christians often choose just to let the opponents of the faith think they have good grounds for trusting their senses, trusting their rational faculties, and trusting their competence to objectively assess evidence. Since Christianity is true, of course, unbelievers who reason as they really shouldn’t given their unbelief do reason on good grounds, grounds of the truth they deny, but presuppositionalists of the past felt obligated to point out this disconnect, to drive home to unbelievers that they were basing their thinking on Christian presuppositions that their unbelieving systems of thought should obligate them to deny, or at least to distrust. Today’s presuppositionally aware apologists often don’t. While the purely evidential case may often win converts, I share the old presuppositionalists’ worry that this produces Christians with some fundamentally flawed, foundationally faithless, thinking habits—flawed thinking habits that compromise obedient, properly pious thinking and conduct in countless ways over the course of these Christians’ lives. Yes, we presuppositionalists really are an odd bunch worried about unusual things. But that doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

[2] Digital copies of most of my seminary papers were lost in a catastrophic computer failure, joined to a catastrophic backup-software failure discovered after the fact, so some require reconstruction from print. Such reconstruction could have been completed well before now, of course, but it was not. (Note my careful usage of the passive voice to avoid saying straight out that I could have completed the reconstructions well before now. Having abandoned hope of becoming an academic, I now show signs of turning into a bureaucratic. Not good.) Because of this and other footnotes added to this post, the numbering of the notes here will not match the numbering in my original paper. For that, you’ll have to see the version posted to Academia.

[3] This simplified sketch of philosophical history draws upon background material provided by this paper’s sources, listed in the bibliography, all viewed from a distance, with focus somewhat blurred to allow details and fine distinctions to fade into the background.

[4] Westminster Confession of Faith 1:8. Though most Reformed believers today do not embrace Edward Freer Hills’s application of Van Tilian presuppositionalism to this issue, so that they do not actually believe that the text of Scripture used by God’s people has been kept pure in all ages, I’ve been pleased to discover an active remnant of Hills-compatible thinkers alive and well, if not very numerous, in the Reformed, included the Reformed Baptist, community. Jeff Riddle and Dane Jöhannsson are two noteworthy Baptist examples. (In case you share our degenerate culture’s obsession with chronological age, note that these individuals, though they share this common convictions, represent two different generations.) Another noteworthy Baptist example, albeit one less perfectionist about the received texts, is Robert Truelove. (Though the discussion of the texts “received” by God’s people generally focuses on the New Testament, each Testament has its own received text. In the case of the Old Testament, this is the Masoretic Text; in the case of the New, the Textus Receptus.) Another worthwhile example, particularly if you like your corrections of theological error presented in animated form, is Jonathan Sheffield. The prominent individuals in this community tend to be pastors rather than academics, but since pastors serve in a biblically authorized role within God’s church whereas academics (who are not also pastors) do not, I don’t see this as a mark against them.

On the subject of what “most Reformed believers today do…embrace,” most conservative Reformed people, in common with most other conservative evangelicals and most fundamentalists, embrace, and strive to defend and perpetuate, the naturalistic and empiricist approach of the Enlightenment. This preference so dominates Christian scholarship that, as I noted in the backstory, even organizations that lean toward presuppositionalism in much of their work refuse to apply presuppositional insights to their selection of which Bible version to use.

[5] The “critical” attitude of mature modern, and of postmodern, thought finds apt expression in the words of Kant: “Reason must in all its undertakings subject itself to criticism; should it limit freedom of criticism by any prohibitions, it must harm itself….Reason depends on this freedom for its very existence” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 1781, trans. Norman K. Smith [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1929], B 766, quoted by Polanyi,* as abridged when quoted from Polanyi (and with fuller publication data provided) by Stefania Ruzsits Jha, Reconsidering Michael Polanyi’s Philosophy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), 31. Jha identifies the page number for Kant as B 767, but the footnote in Personal Knowledge lists B 766. Jha also fails to note that Polanyi’s quotation of Kant ends on Personal Knowledge 272, not 271.

* Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958; corrected edition, 1962), 31. References to this text will hereafter appear in parentheses in the body of the paper, preceded by the abbreviation “PK.” All references are to the corrected edition (1962).

[6] “Modern” and “critical” are not strictly equivalent terms, of course. Modern thought was most often selectively critical (for example, of religious claims, but not of its own foundational premises). [I’ve noted an example of this selectivity in this post’s backstory.]

[7] The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). References to this text will appear in parentheses in the body of the paper, preceded by the abbreviation “SR.”

[8] “Many readers…,” Haught writes, “will recognize the Lonerganian and Polanyian flavor of [van Huyssteen’s] approach, though neither Bernard Lonergan nor Michael Polanyi’s name appears in the index or bibliography. There is something here closely akin to the older transcendental quest for the invariant structure and irrepressible reality-seeking nature of intelligent subjectivity.” (John F. Haught, Review of The Shaping of Rationality: Towards Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science, Theological Studies, vol. 61 no. 2 [June 2000], 382.)

[9] A helpful discussion of how the term “fundamentalist” is used by such academics as van Huyssteen (though with no specific mention of van Huyssteen) may be found in Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 244–245.

[10] On the subject of my creative reframing of professedly Christian thought that most people of my highly conservative theological bent prefer to simply reject and refute, consider my 2009 paper, “Lesslie Newbigin’s Epistemology: Humble Presuppositionalism?” currently available only here on the Pious Eye site.

[11] In Polanyi’s thought, the term “indwelling” is used to describe how our heuristic pursuit of knowledge requires we “dwell in” the intellectual practices that permit us to acquire knowledge. We can only effectively utilize these practices when we have thus committed ourselves to them, even though this requires us to trust in implicit presuppositions we may be unable to articulate. This necessary indwelling of knowledge-acquiring practices seems to parallel our more general contextual embeddedness as finite and time-bound creatures; I have used the term here to highlight this parallel.

[12] My affiliate link to a search for “objectivism” may prove misleading, since many books concerning “objectivism” will focus on the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Though I suspect her philosophy, and that of her followers, may have much in common with the sort of thinking van Huyssteen and Polanyi criticize, neither has Randian objectivism in view. Rand at one point accused pragmatism of “lobotomizing” thinkers in the West (I believe she did this in her Philosophy: Who Needs It), so she does appear to have been an enemy of the sort of fallibilist pragmatism toward which van Huyssteenian and Polanyian currents flow. (On the topic of affiliate links: Amazon’s decision to join other big tech companies in censoring free speech that did not advocate violence but only happened to occur before violence, along with its occasional willingness to remove from its marketplace books that especially upset advocates of things like transgender ideology, has motivated me to begin replacing Amazon links with those of other affiliate programs. In my judgment, the main one of these, AbeBooks, provides superior results with better prices anyway. It doesn’t appear that AbeBooks sells such media as DVDs at present, however, so complete elimination of Amazon links may not yet be possible.)

[13] In accord with this site’s developing usage conventions, this post uses a plain English phrase “same source” in place of the Latin abbreviation “ibid.,” for “ibidem” meaning “in the same place,” that is, in the same source referenced previously. Were this a reference to another page in the same source, a new page number would follow the “same source” statement, as in “same source, 20.”

[14] Since writing this paper, I have come to see the “irresistible grace” terminology as misleading. I noted some of the issues in one of my 2017 books reviews. I now prefer to call God’s saving grace given to his elect “never-resisted grace,” since there is no force involved and no resistance ever needs to be overcome. (Well, I suppose one could say that the elect individual answering God’s effectual call does experience resistance in his own flesh, in his fallen or sin nature, his “old man.” Nevertheless, he as an elect individuals never resists or wants to resist God’s call. Those who will never be saved do resist God’s general call to all to repent and believe the gospel, and even those whom God will effectually call may resist this general call beforehand, and no doubt our Reformed forebears called God’s saving grace “irresistible” simply to distinguish it from the “resistible,” but still unmerited, favor he shows to all men by making the gospel known to them and calling upon them to believe it, even though in their natural state they have no inclination to answer this call.) If you doubt that non-Reformed people naturally misconstrue “irresistible grace” to mean that God forces unwilling people to get saved, take a look at this sermon by a certain (now deceased) Arminian preacher whose many years of experience teaching and interacting with other Christians should have protected from such a fundamental misunderstanding. As I said in a 2018 follow-up to that 2017 book review, “Sentimental attachment to the TULIP mnemonic should not prevent adoption of clearer terminology.”

[15] Though there is much more to the concept than this, it suffices for our current discussion to note that “critical realism” is realism that is not naively realistic. Van Huyssteen believes “the strength of the critical realist position lies in its insistence that both the objects of science and the objects of religious belief often lie beyond the range of literal description” (SR 218), which strikes me as problematic. How, exactly, can an object one cannot literally describe be an object of belief? If one knows only a metaphor or analogy, and not the literal object that metaphor or analogy represents, is it not the case that the object of one’s belief is in fact the metaphor or analogy itself, and not any alleged object represented by it? One might speak of an implicit and subliminal “awareness” or “knowledge” of such objects, and might speak of “being influenced by” such “implicit knowledge,” but use of the term “belief” seems merely confused. When they are not falling victim to the opposite error of oversimplifying and employing dubious this-worldly analogies, discussions of the Trinity often manifest just this sort of confusion.

Then again, an inability to precisely express a literal truth might not rule out one’s turning out to in fact believe it. Concerning Polanyi’s “implicit knowledge” terminology, which I’ve generally let stand in this paper, one may wonder whether “knowledge” that is implicit should be called “knowledge” at all. While I often find myself inclined to call it “awareness” rather than “knowledge,” I can see why “knowledge” might be preferred in some cases. If one has beliefs that are both true and justified yet, at the same time, one lacks explicit and conscious awareness of those beliefs, calling those beliefs “knowledge” seems appropriate. Van Tilian apologists, of course, argue that much that unbelievers think and do indicates that they “know” things they actually deny knowing (deny even believing), that they at once (1) have justified true beliefs matching the presuppositions of Christians, beliefs that show up in how they actually think, feel, and go about living their lives; and (2) deny having those beliefs (with enough sincerity to convince even themselves that their denials are genuine) and profess to hold contrary beliefs (again with enough sincerity to convince even themselves). I suppose that one way of reading Crime and Punishment would be as an extended exploration of how what one believes that one believes can prove quite contrary to what one actually believes, and of how what one actually believes (in the case of God’s truth, what one actually knows) will ultimately win out. None of this justifies the idea that some believable truths are inexpressible literally or non-metaphorically, however, just that some believed truths may be literally unexpressed.

[16] As I noted in a 2015 book review, I now prefer to speak of those who adhere to Scripture in its plain sense as biblical rather than young-earth creationists. In addition to “young” being a relative term that might mean different things to different people (an earth brought into existence two million years ago would be “young” compared to the earth that secular science imagines to have come into existence over four billion years ago), the “young-earth” terminology misses the main focus of the debate: Shall we who profess to believe the Bible accept what the Bible says in its plain sense in a book of plainly historical genre throughout, and plainly accepted as historical by all biblical authors who refer to it later, or shall we try to force some other meaning upon it based on what we think science teaches? If we choose the latter course, why do we cling to Scripture at all? Why not just assert that science has disproved the early chapters of Genesis, thus discrediting not just Moses but every prophet and apostle, as well as our Lord, who later treated those early chapters as simply and historically true? Though I have acquaintances who are both Christians and “old-earth” creationists, and though these individuals think they have sound exegetical grounds for doubting that the Genesis creation account means what it plainly says, I’ve never been able to see these or other alternative interpretations of Genesis (including those permitting belief in theistic evolution) as compatible with consistently faithful presuppositions.

[17] Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 218–240. When I first read Plantinga’s presentation of this argument, it seemed to me a confirmation and clarification of what I had already come to see as an implication of Christian presuppositional insights. The reality that unbelieving presuppositions provide no basis for trusting one’s faculties (perceptual, rational, moral) has become fairly central to my thinking, influencing how I view experience and evidence as bases for belief and even how I reflect on politics. Though at least one of Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief footnotes indicates that he neither agrees with nor much respects “young-earth” creationists (at least as of the year 2000), his insights on this issue have enriched my thinking.

[18] “Reflection upon religious experience” is van Huyssteen’s definition of theology, repeated throughout The Shaping. His basic stance seems to be that the task of (public) theology is to seek best to explain, most optimally to understand, religious experience (individual, communal, and historical). Scripture would then be taken (in the public context, at least) solely as a record of religious experiences, not as, for example, “self-authenticating” and “inerrant” communication from God to humans.

[19] On the subject of Jerome A. Stone….Readers new to van Huyssteen might find a helpful introduction to his thought in Stone’s “Commentary and Response: J. Wentzel van Huyssteen: Refiguring Rationality in the Postmodern Age,” Zygon vol. 32, no. 2 (June 2000), 415–426.

[20] Positions mediating between or combining elements of these extremes, such as belief in providentially directed evolution, are similarly compatible with the data.

[21] Polanyi has a remarkable penchant for analogical thinking, constantly seeing parallels between widely disparate processes and proposing extensions of principles found operative in one field to other fields where an analogous process seems at work.

[22] Stone, “Commentary and Response,” 420.

[23] As I noted in one of my 2020 posts, “using ‘he’ for both known-to-be-male subjects and generic subjects seems to me to best combine the logic of using proper singulars with the stylistic avoidance of complex prolixity.” This principle now guides usage here at Pious Eye: Seeing by the True Light. Though this return to an old convention will upset politically correct types who want to force our inherently and thoroughly gendered English language to function in a gender-neutral or gender-inclusive way wholly alien to it, it should be evident to everyone by now that these politically correct types will never be satisfied with anything the rest of us do, and that they will in fact always find reasons to be offended even with other members of their own tribe. Doing anything to try to please these people or avoid their ire is not only a waste of time but a dangerous display of weakness, closely equivalent to intentionally cutting yourself while swimming in shark-infested waters.

[24] Review of The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology, vol. 54, no. 3 (July 2000), 334.

[25] I should perhaps have said this is what they should mean, since it isn’t always clear what others who call Scripture “self-authenticating” mean. Given the empiricist tendencies of our day, I suspect that many have in mind such internal evidence of Scripture’s authenticity as the agreement among its parts: human rational inspection of Scripture’s contents leads to human judgment that the parts of Scripture agree with one another; this is then followed by a human determination that Scripture very probably is the written Word of God. But if Scripture thus depends on the human reasoning process for its authentication, why call it self-authenticating? The only way I can see for Scripture to be shown authentic to humans without humans having to prove it authentic to themselves (through an inductive or deductive rational process) is for God to make its authenticity evident to human minds by directly affirming that authenticity to them. Humans would in that case not prove Scripture’s authenticity to themselves by assessing evidence; instead, they would directly perceive its authenticity. Their consideration of evidence would then follow and, understood in the light of the God-given perception, would be found to confirm that authenticity. (Since even human perceptions are constructed representations of things rather than the things themselves, speaking of this God-given awareness of Scripture’s authenticity as “perception” probably isn’t ideal. Perhaps experience or apprehension would be better.)

[26] Quoting Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (London: 1953), 130.