Apologetics: April 2011 Archives

Andy Naselli has posted a short excerpt from D.A. Carson and Tim Keller's Gospel-Centered Ministry, one of the new series of Gospel Coalition booklets. The excerpt explains why the Gospel Coalition's statement of faith begins with God rather than with scripture. I hold both Carson and Keller in high regard, and it's very rare that I can identify anything to question from either of them. But this excerpt strikes me as being either ignorant about the meaning of a basic philosophical term or completely mistaken in how to apply it.

Carson and Keller's reasoning is basically that they want to resist what they see as a fault in the elevation of reason in the Enlightenment. Evangelical statements of faith in the past begin with a doctrine of scripture and then proceed to derive theological commitments in a systematic way via exegesis of that scripture. The result, according to Carson and Keller, is the presentation of a system of thought that gives the appearance of being deduced by unquestionable reasoning from the starting point of scripture.

It's their next move that I find problematic. They criticize such an approach by calling it foundationalist. The only hint as to what they mean by that is what they go on to say. They resist it because our cultural location affects our interpetation and relies too much on a rigid subject-object distinction, and we need to pay attention to historical theology, philosophy, and social reflection.

I'm not sure what any of that has to do with foundationalism. I have no problem with pointing out that our cultural location affects our interpretation. The subject-object distinction is a bit rigid if we ignore that we can be both subject and object in different respects, and being one can influence the ways in which one is the other. We certainly do need to pay attention to historical theology, philosophy, and social reflection. But how is any of that non-foundationalist? Foundationalism in epistemology is the thesis that our knowledge has a structure with a foundation, a basis upon which everything else is built. The beliefs in the foundation ought to be the best sort of beliefs we could have, ones that we can know to be true or have very good reason to believe. Some such beliefs would be self-evident or knowable just by thinking about them. Others might be learned by reliable processes that we can't prove to be true or reliable but that are genuinely reliable and thus lead to knowledge or justified beliefs.

I can't figure out how foundationalism creates any problem for any of what Carson and Keller are worried about. If the idea is that we shouldn't start with the foundation of scripture and instead start with the foundation of God, then that's still foundationalism, just with a different foundation. If the idea is that there are sources of information that we assume to be perfectly good that can be bad and lead us to false information, then foundationalism accepts that. Our biases can influence what we take to be a good foundation and thus end up with beliefs in our foundation that shouldn't be there. If the idea is that it's legitimate to have sources in the foundation that philosophers of the Enlightenment wouldn't want there, it's still foundationalism. It's just arguing for a different foundation.

The alternative to foundationalism is coherentism. Coherentism uses the raft model to contrast with the pyramid model of foundationalism. The idea behind coherentism is that your beliefs can be perfectly justified or a set of knowledge even if they're not based on anything legitimate. All it takes is for your beliefs to cohere. If they're not inconsistent, if there's no contradiction anywhere in there, then you know everything you believe. Such a view is so radically incompatible with Christian teaching in scripture that I can't imagine Carson or Keller seriously entertaining it. They hold that you can't know God without your information coming from God in some way, either by scripture or by coming through the testimony of a believer (or, in rare cases, by a more miraculous way of coming to understand, but the source would nonetheless be God). In fact, Carson and Keller are both Calvinists, and their Reformed theology has it that any of our beliefs leading to salvation are put in place by God, either directly or by some human means. What grounds them as knowledge is that God places them there and allows them to serve as a legitimately-held belief. The basis of any Christian's theology is therefore beliefs bestowed upon us by God that are epistemically grounded by God's miraculous working in our hearts and minds. Knowledge and belief-justification in Reformed theology strike me as particularly foundationalist. Coherentism is basically relativism about truth or knowledge (depending on whether you're a coherentist about truth or knowledge). I'm 100% sure that both Carson and Keller would consider coherentism incompatiible with their understanding of truth, knowledge, what justifies our beliefs, and so on.

Now there is a tendency among emergentists and pseudo-postmodernists on the fringes of evangelicalism to use the word 'foundationalism' to refer to a very narrow version of foundationalism held by Enlightenment philosophers and then to mis-label all evangelicals as foundationalist and thus living in the dark ages. But foundationalism itself is much broader, and it surprises me to see Keller and Carson giving the term up so easily while defending a view that seems as far as I can tell to be just as foundationalist as the view they're criticizing. I find their reference pretty puzzling, unless they're taken in by this group that they've both spent a good deal of time not giving in to, co-opting a mistaken understanding of what foundationalism is merely because some of their philosophically amateurish opponents have adopted a jaundiced view of what foundationalism is in order to strike it down with little argument. If that's what's going on here, then I would have expected better of both Keller and Carson. If that's not what's going on, I'm at a complete loss.


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