Sparks-certainty and presuppositions

Welcome back. I am reading and reacting to Kenton Sparks’ book, God’s Word in Human Words.

We did not finish a very philosophical chapter about the history of hermeneutics from premoderninsm to postmodernism. Big words. But Sparks has the insight that it is all really about certainty. Can we have certainty? Modernists tend towards optimism about this. Postmodernists–of what he calls the antirealist school– are pessimistic about any certainty at all. Sparks adopts a practical realist view within the postmodern perspective that he says is guardedly optimistic about certainty.

We cannot have God-like certainty. But there is stuff we can know.

The inerrancy of scripture doctrine, which some hold as the bedrock of evangelical faith, is meant to guarantee certainty. But Sparks asks:

Is it therefore possible that God has selected to speak to human beings through adequate rather than inerrant words, and is it further possible that he did so because human beings are adequate rather than inerrant readers? Might it be the very height of divine wisdom, for God to speak to us from an adequate human horizon rather than from his divine, inerrant viewpoint? Before we presuppose what kind of discourse God must offer us, perhaps we should carefully consider the discourse itself to see what he has done in Scripture (p. 55).

Some evangelicals, Sparks explains, are into presuppositionalism. As best I understand this, it is a method of apologetics that claims that everybody, secular and religious starts with presuppositions. It asks non-Christians to question their presuppositions. It asks them to see that secular presuppositions are no better than Christian presuppositions. Then, in practice, it shows that a worldview that starts with belief in the God of an inerrant Bible gives a better and more coherent worldview.

Maybe I am getting this wrong. I am not exactly sympathetic to the idea.  Of course we do all have presuppositions.  But the jump from that to their view of the Bible does not work for me.

It seems like a circular argument based on a coherence theory of truth, which was held by idealists who followed Hegel. Josiah Royce comes to mind. This was never persuasive to me. Novelists put together coherent worldviews all the time. But they are not objectively true.

Sparks rejects presuppositionalism from a postmodernist perspective. It is a kind of foundationalism, so it is a throwback to the modernist period.  I am not fond of this kind of chronological debunking.  But I mostly agree with him.

I have encountered presuppositionalism as a kind of argument for otherwise unsupportable views. If I say that the archeology does not support claims made in the Book of Joshua, they say that I should assume that archeology will eventually show Joshua to be correct, because we have to start with the assumption that the Bible always gets history right. In other words, the current state of the evidence doesn’t matter.

This frankly frustrates the hell out of me. Their presuppositions always trump the evidence. I had always put presuppositionalism in the same category as postmodernism, because they both seem to rule out some of the evidence and argue in circles. But Sparks sets presuppositionalism over against the postmodernism. I guess I compared them because they both irked and frustrated me.

One thing they have in common is a kind of certainty. Ironically the antirealist postmodernism seems certain of the unobtainability of actual knowledge. This accounts for some of the antireligious and atheistic zealotry we see today. The one thing they know is that people who claim to know anything are wrong.

Presuppositionalism leads to a kind of certainty that some religious people crave. You start out with God speaking without error. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” It gives almost mathematical certainty. I have a theory that this appeals to people today more than it did in the past because they want a religious security that substitutes for the breakdown in family and institutions. What else could account for the popularity of Young Earth Creationism?

I have had pastoral care of some of these people and have usually tried to deal with them without arguing.  So what I am expressing here is probably some repressed contentiousness.

Mathematical certainty just does not work with history and literary texts. I agree with Sparks in the quote above that we must actually and carefully read the Bible to see what kind of a message this might be. Coming to the Bible with the idea that it must give us an account of the world that contradicts all secular knowledge and agrees with a particular late Protestant view is the opposite of this.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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