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Modernism Shift

Postmodern History

The Enlightenment movement enshrined reason with the result that scientific objectivity was elevated above any claim of biblical revelation. As modernism yielded to postmodernism subjectivity likewise replaced reason with individual revelation- to the extent that the very nature of existence and reality became open to personal interpretation. Holmes believes that Christian scholarship should follow the Augustinian view which brings a disciplined reason to theological issues- enhancing rather than displacing biblical revelation.

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Related Scripture: Acts 26: 25

"Some knowledge of the past is a condition of practical wisdom in the present," says Hastings Rashdall at the end of his three-volume Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. The current postmodern challenge is a case in point, for its rejection of Enlightenment reason reshapes an old debate about the relation of reason to revelation which is fundamental for Christian scholarship. Challenging modernity's rule of reason is nothing new, as we shall see, but it does affect what we then say not only about reason itself but also about revelation, and so about Christian learning.

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

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

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

But not all Christian scholars acknowledged that union. In nineteenth-century England, John Henry Newman fought the theological erosion that accompanied Enlightenment attitudes toward revelation and authority, both in the increasingly liberal theology of his day and in the university curriculum. He also fought the utilitarian view of education then emerging from the rise of modern science and the industrial revolution which followed, arguing instead for carefully mentored liberal learning that develops the intellect and guides student formation. His work inspires educators to this day,[4] and in this postmodern setting his underlying view of reason and revelation receives increasing attention. We are not ruled by reason alone, he points out, but by ideals rooted in our inner nature. Faith is not blind, but neither is it simply an intellectual step based on objective evidence, as Locke supposed, because evidence is colored by tacit assumptions. Rather faith embraces the revealed reality of One who satisfies our deepest needs and aspirations: As Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.[5]

Similarily in nineteenth-century Holland, Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper realized that the autonomy of reason lay at the root of their increasingly secularized society. In his famous 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton, he spoke of Christianity as a worldview in conflict with the current naturalism and its implications in religion and politics, science, and art. These are all made possible by the law-structure God created, and they are all affected by sin, and he showed at length how this is so in science. Reason is never entirely free from such influence, despite the naturalist's assumption. But if worldview assumptions in fact lie at the foundation of the disciplines, then reason and revelation together will shape Christian learning.[6]

But it was Immanuel Kant's revolutionary thinking that brought subjectivity in human reason most to the fore, introducing a new phase in the debate. Aware of Scottish realism but not convinced of its validity, Kant contended that the space-time forms and causal categories of modern science are not rooted objectively in nature but subjectively in the human knower. What they structure is not reality itself but our perception and understanding of it, subjective phenomena only. Consequently the traditional proofs from the natural order for the existence of God fail.[7] Yet with his pietist background, Kant found belief in God a necessary postulate of the moral life, while in ethics the ideal of a universal rationality remained possible because an inner sense of duty is common to all. His Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone accordingly reduced Christian theology to a universal ethic by reconstruing the particularities of revealed religion and rejecting the uniqueness of revealed truth. But nineteenth-century neo-Kantians relativized all subjectivity, uncovering psychological and historical variables that anticipated depth psychology and the sociology of knowledge. Reason, it seemed, including theology, is neither objective nor autonomous, but relative to the subjective knower. In nineteenth-century liberal theology, revelation itself became subjective, not the authoritative self-disclosure of a personal and transcendent deity, but a historically relative religious consciousness unfolding within the human spirit.

Plainly, postmodernism's rejection of Enlightenment reason is by no means novel. The autonomous knower was clearly a fiction, as both Newman and Kuyper saw. Obviously we need objectivity in our thinking, lest unrelated personal concerns skew our conclusions. But we know only in part, our vision is limited, our thinking twisted, our knowledge fragmented. We look through a glass darkly from different personal and cultural perspectives. We see from a particular time and place in history. We hold treasures of wisdom and knowledge in earthen vessels, even the truth God has revealed. To this extent, postmodernism is nothing new. We are not autonomous knowers with absolutely objective knowledge. Believing so would border on hubris, for we think as finite and fallen beings do, not as God.

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

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

Modernity's quest for absolute knowledge of reality is accordingly replaced by a realist-antirealist debate that ranges from science into ethics and theology. Yet human reason, although not the absolute knower, still has connections to reality. The basic law of logic, for instance, that A and non-A cannot both be true at the same time and in the same respect, is also a law of being. This challenges self-contradictory interpretations, so that an author's explicit language precludes some readings of his text, and scientific theories are falsifiable by experimental results. In the so-called human sciences, where subjectivity is more a factor, Roy Bhaskar still finds objective controls that make realism possible.[11] A former research scientist and now a theologian, Alister McGrath has adopted Bhaskar's critical realism and extends it to Christian theology.[12] Critical realism argues that we know, however perspectivally, what is objectively true. Epistemological subjectivity by no means implies its metaphysical counterpart.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Longmans, Green, 1930). Cp. William J. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] On Christian Doctrine.

[17] See Bonaventure, The Mind's Road to God (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1988). Also Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1961).


 By: Arthur F. Holmes