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existential crisis

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Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Breaking it off with Scripturalism

Infatuation with Scripturalism is like a teenage crush…but can’t a man marry his high school sweetheart?

Steve Hays has a post on Triablogue largely critiquing Ed Feser, in which he gives his opinion of other contemporary Christian thinkers—including a brief comment about myself.

He observes:

Among the up and coming generation, it’s my impression that Ryan Hedrich and Bnonn Dominic Tennant were the most intellectually promising Christians who’ve been mentored by Scripturalism. However, Bnonn seems to have outgrown Cheung while Ryan appears to be means-testing Scripturalism. That doesn’t mean they will make a complete break with Scripturalism. To some extent this can be a case of going behind Clark to the realist/rationalist tradition which inspired him. Going straight to the source.

It is true that I was mentored by Scripturalism. I was converted largely due to epistemological arguments, including a nagging feeling that while the transcendental argument for the existence of God was not very clear, it was nonetheless onto something extremely important. (James Anderson and Greg Welty have proved as much with their argument for God from logic, which is essentially a refined TAG).

As a young, aggressive Dunning-Kruger Skeptic, it was only natural for me to become a young, aggressive Dunning-Kruger Christian when I was converted. I was immediately attracted to the fisticuffs and swagger of Vincent Cheung, and the promise of epistemic certainty that he offered. Indeed, if you can ferret out a copy of my apologetics book, The Wisdom of God, which I have conveniently buried, you will see that I was a contentious Scripturalist and argued for a staunchly presuppositional, Bible-based approach to apologetics.

Here’s what seem to me to be the key elements of the kind of Scripturalism I promoted (I may have missed some, but these spring to mind):

  1. Knowledge entails epistemic certainty—that is, to know that X is true means there is no possibility that X could be false.
  2. Epistemic certainty about X is only possible given omniscience; therefore, for anyone to know X requires X to be infallibly revealed by God.
  3. Since sense perception admits the possibility of error, beliefs gained through sense perception can never rise to the level of knowledge; therefore, it must be the case that sense perception is merely an occasion on which God directly mediates knowledge to our minds, independently of the coincidental perception that accompanies it.
  4. The Bible contains sufficient propositions to build a comprehensive worldview and know at least the crucial things we need to know.
  5. There is demonstrably no other revelation that can rival the Bible in its ability to build such a worldview, since other “revelations” are internally inconsistent and therefore false.
  6. So the Bible must be true by the impossibility of the contrary: to even claim to know something (including the falsehood of the Bible) without recourse to the Bible is either to presuppose the truth of the Bible, or otherwise not to actually know it at all.

This is why the Scripturalist mantra is “The Bible is the word of God”—that’s their starting principle; the fundamental proposition that gets their worldview off the ground.

You can see why this is attractive to somewhat naïve but aggressively argumentative converts who want to get out there and start tearing down strongholds. But you can also see how it is kind of sad for mature apologists to stick to these guns after they’ve had time to think Scripturalism through and test it in battle.

For example, item (1) above just trades on gross naïveté about the positions staked out by philosophers in the area of epistemology. What constitutes knowledge is a complicated question, and simply assuming a strict internalist view of justification—as Scripturalism does—is hardly convincing to anyone who has read even the Wikipedia entry on epistemology.

More importantly, how do you prove (1) or (2) from the Bible? Those aren’t facts deducible from Scripture. So whereas Van Tilianism takes God as a reasonable precondition for knowledge, Clarkian Scripturalism takes the Bible as an unreasonable precondition for knowledge.

The basic problem with Scripturalism—at least the kind I was involved with—is that it takes for granted that genuine knowledge is impossible without revelation, rather than just without God, and then tries to build an apologetic methodology on top of that assumption. It also has to deduce the basic reliability of sense experience and inductive inference from the Bible in order to give Scripturalists the basic philosophical machinery to get by in the world. But the Bible wasn’t written as a philosophical treatise to underwrite a particular kind of foundationalism, and so it simply doesn’t have the goods to do this. (Hence you have Vincent Cheung arguing, demonstrably falsely, that the Bible gives us inspired examples of how sense experience cannot produce knowledge.)

Is Scripturalism redeemable?

Scripturalism is a bit of a fixer-upper, to say the least. It just is. But is it even worth the effort? Is it a beaten-up old Mustang or is it a burned-out Camry? One is worth salvaging; the other not so much.

It’s not entirely a rhetorical question, because I haven’t entirely decided.

If the basic thrust of Scripturalism—that revelation is the sine qua non of knowledge—is essential to it, then we should just chuck it out and start over. But if we can attenuate that claim and still call it “Scripturalism”, and instead say that revelation is knowledge in excelsis because God is the sine qua non, then perhaps we can talk. Although it’s hard to see how that position would be distinguished from orthodox Christianity in general.

7 comments

  1. Sean

    I’m curious where this notion of epistemic certainty came from? As far as I can tell it has never been part of Clark’s or Robbins’ epistemology and Clark in places positively distances himself from the notion saying that people are often certain about any number of things that turn out to be false. Further, the idea of certainty seems to me more of a psychological disposition and not a criteria for knowledge. Could it be that those who sour on Scripturalism never really understood it or perhaps have gotten their views of what it consists of secondhand?

    Also, last I checked (and it’s been some time), I didn’t even know Cheung considered himself a Scripturalist. He certainly shares some similarities with Clark, but he’s no Clark. I just wouldn’t confuse the two. As for Steve’s claim that Ryan Hedrich is “means testing” Scripturalism, IMO it is really just a case of biting the hands that fed him. Ryan is bitter about the push back he has received (mostly because of me) due to his embrace of Drake Shelton’s “triadology” nonsense which is just warmed over Unitarianism (which, in Shelton’s case, is rooted in his extreme racism).

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Certainty does not necessarily entail knowledge. But Cheung, at least as I read him, would certainly say that knowledge entails certainty.

    I can’t speak for Clark since I haven’t read much of him; but Cheung strongly repudiates the view that inductive reasoning or sense experience can ever produce knowledge; his position is that we can only know what is revealed by God, or can be validly deduced from revelation. If probabilistic knowledge were unproblematic, why would he so strongly reject inductive reasoning and sense experience?

    Further, the idea of certainty seems to me more of a psychological disposition and not a criteria for knowledge.

    I disposed of that claim in advance by defining certainty in terms of propositions that have no possibility of being false. That isn’t meant to be a psychological assessment.

    Could it be that those who sour on Scripturalism never really understood it

    Perhaps I did misunderstand it; but I read Cheung quite extensively, and I have also been privy to debates with Scripturalists—particularly you—so it would be odd if I had gotten the wrong end of the stick so completely.

    or perhaps have gotten their views of what it consists of secondhand?

    Calling Cheung “secondhand” sounds like the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

    I just wouldn’t confuse the two.

    Neither would I. Cheung expressly claims to be different to Clark; but there is no denying the similarities between their positions. In any case, if Clark’s form of Scripturalism rejects epistemic certainty and thus the claim that Scripture is the sine qua non of knowledge (mind you, as yet I have no reason to think it does), so much the better for it. But then, what sets it apart as Scripturalism?

  3. Sean

    First, it’s not “Clark’s form of Scripturalism,” Clark’s philosophy is Scripturalism.

    Second, you titled your piece “Breaking it off with Scripturalism,” but your “key elements” have little or nothing to do with Clark so your objections specifically points 1 and 2 simply miss the mark. I don’t deny the similarities between Cheung and Clark, but the similarities are superficial at best and your objections above merely demonstrate that point. Aside from Religion, Reason, and Revelation, A Christian View of Men and Things, Lord God of Truth/Concerning the Teacher, Three Types of Religious Philosophy, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, not to mention Thales to Dewey, and these just for starters, you should then read Clark and His Critics where Clark addresses the objections to his philosophy by men all more notable, able and competent than self-styled Internet “theologians” like Steve Hays.

    Before you break it off with Scripturalism maybe you should get to know what it is first. And, then, if you decide that you’ve really outgrown Scripturalism and want to file for divorce perhaps you can offer a more suitable alternative than replacing “God” for revelation, thinking that is a preferable presuppositional starting point when it just begs all questions.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    That assumes that I see significant value in studying Clark and learning the distinctives of his thought. But given how problematic and naive a “hard” presuppositionalism is, why would I bother, when there are so much more interesting things to devote my time to—like learning the original languages and delving into the worldview of the Bible’s authors and original readers (which was notably non-presuppositional)?

  5. Sean

    I could care less what you study. Your loss if you chose not to study Clark. My only point is Cheung is not a Scripturalist. Your post is misleading. It should be titled, “Breaking it off with Cheung.”

  6. Sean

    Should be “choose” not “chose.” Hit add too fast.

  7. Ryan

    “As for Steve’s claim that Ryan Hedrich is “means testing” Scripturalism, IMO it is really just a case of biting the hands that fed him.”

    Whose hand am I supposedly biting? Do you even understand what Steve meant by that? What are you talking about?

    “Ryan is bitter about the push back he has received (mostly because of me) due to his embrace of Drake Shelton’s “triadology” nonsense which is just warmed over Unitarianism (which, in Shelton’s case, is rooted in his extreme racism).”

    No, I – and others you “know” – just reject your implicit tritheism.

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