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Evangelicals and Epistemology

“The circle of conversation has brought me around to the problem with which I made a special point of not beginning, namely the fixation of contemporary “evangelical” identity on epistemology and reason. From where we stand today, under the claim of a liberating Lord calling us to be the servants of our neighbors, that preoccupation seems to represent a concession to Enlightenment and not a victory over it. It looks like an acceptance of the Scholastic notion that we seek a truth system with which to defend ourselves as those who possess it, rather than being claimed by a Lord who calls us to join him in his condescension.”

~ John Howard Yoder, To Hear the Word, 60-1. (New Edition forthcoming from Cascade Books)


  1. mike d wrote:

    This is undoubtedly correct and I say that as someone who gladly drinks from the epistemological well often.

    Do you know who (or what trends, theories, concepts) he would have had in mind when writing this?

    Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  2. Andy Rowell wrote:

    Reminds me of these two quotes from MacIntyre who also critiques the obsession with finding an epistemological starting place–saying this was not at all Aquinas’s purpose but rather later “Thomists.”

    “The whole epistemological turn of philosophy is thus from this point of view the outcome of a mistake.”

    “And in so doing they doomed Thomism to the fate of all philosophies which give priority to epistemological questions: the indefinite multiplication of disagreement. There are just too many alternative ways to begin.”

    Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Version of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 69, 75.

    I’m curious about Wheaton College professor W. Jay Wood’s book Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Contours of Christian Philosophy) (InterVarsity Press, 1998) after reading Wood’s rather critical review of USC philosopher Dallas Willard’s new book in this month’s issue of Christianity Today.

    More Than Deep Feelings
    Dallas Willard argues that we really can know Christ.
    W. Jay Wood | posted 6/09/2009

    Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 6:49 am | Permalink
  3. Paul wrote:

    This quote puts into words what I’ve struggled to express myself. The obsession with “inerrancy” or “verbal plenary inspiration” is just a disguised attempt to make the science of theology seem more safe. And Christianity is never safe.

    I always thought the epistemology of conservative evangelicalism had more in common with logical positivism myself – “if the Bible isn’t historically and scientifically accurate through and through, there’s no use in building a systematic theology upon it.”

    Isn’t Robert Jenson occasionally guilty of this too?

    Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 7:11 am | Permalink
  4. Brad A. wrote:

    Quite right, Paul. Raised in that tradition, I can certainly vouch for what you say here.

    Fundamentalist inerrancy, a combination of Scottish Common Sense Reason and Baconian science, reduced Scripture to a “storehouse of facts” (Charles Hodge) and did for Scripture in the beliefs and practices of modern preachers what was done to the created order in the eyes of scientists: allowed humanity to be master.

    And this is an essential element of idolatry – to put parameters around God’s identity and action such that we can be in control.

    Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  5. Skip Newby wrote:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Halden. Let’s don’t jump to self-righteousness too quickly though. If our primary focus is intellectually “knowing” Christ, and digging, digging, and digging some more, we are being as epistemologically reasonable as those we indict. It’s about “knowing” Him in a love relationship.

    Peace, Skip.

    Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Adrian Woods wrote:

    By the sounds of it, Yoder hits at a concept developed by William Abraham in “Canon and Criterion”: that is modern theologies obsession with prolegammena and the attempt to turn the canonical tradition into an epistemological criterion. However, this is not a mark against epistemology as a discipline or a valid domain of inquiry, rather a slap on the hand of theologians who don’t take the time to get up-to-date on contemporary analytic epistemology.

    See Abraham’s essay “Systematic Theology as Analytic Theology” in Michael Rea new collection “Analytic Theology.” Here Abraham makes a plug for a new domain in theological studies called “The Epistemology of Theology.”

    Good Stuff.

    Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  7. Dan wrote:

    Charles Taylor develops this theme extensively in A Secular Age – modern evangelicalism buys into the framework of modernity wholesale. This is probably why evangelicals get so worked up about post-modernity ;)

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 7:01 am | Permalink

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