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Jonathan Edwards on commonsense as a failure of the imagination

Americans have a long history of touting commonsense as providing a solid foundation for sure knowledge of the world. We’re often skeptical of those whose ideas sound too “theoretical” or “abstract,” and we scoff at people who posit ideas that seem radically contrary to the world as we experience it.

This attitude often displays itself most clearly in how people react to scientific theories. People laugh at the idea that the universe could be made of “strings,” because obviously we don’t experience reality that way. And, many mock the idea of global warming because it happened to be colder in their part of the world the last couple of years. Now, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether these theories, and others, are right. My only point is to comment on how many people use commonsense experience to reject or “refute” more abstract ideas.

For Edwards, this suggests a complete lack of imagination.

I’ve been re-reading Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and this section stood out to me the other day. The specific context has to do with Edward’s philosophical idealism and how contrary to commonsense it is to suggest that the “physical” is not what is ultimately real. But, Marsden goes on to point out that the same imaginative openness to new ideas also characterized Edwards’ approach to scientific developments.

The problem with thinking that commonsense experience was ultimate, he was convinced, was a failure of imagination….’Imagination’ at the time meant literally the faculty by which one forms images of things. The case of prejudices, said Edwards, was that people get so used to perceiving things in common ways that they ‘make what they can actually perceive by their senses, or by immediate and outside reflection into their own souls, the standard of possibility or impossibility; so that there must be no body, forsooth, bigger than they can conceive of, or less than they can see with their eyes; nor motion either much swifter or slower than they can imagine.” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 80)

This isn’t to say that Edwards rejected commonsense. In most situations, commonsense is a fine guide to understanding the world. But, Edwards point is that our perspective is inherently limited. So, if we insist on judging the world on the basis of our own limited experiences, we will necessarily be prejudiced against much larger truths. And, Christians in particular should be able to look beyond our limited horizons and imagine possibilities that border on the absurd.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/20)

  • Peter Wallace comments on the future of preaching, as he observed it at the second annual National Festival of Young Preachers.

I have seen the future of preaching, and it’s a beautiful thing.

When Mark Noll declared that the scandal of the evangelical mind was that there was no mind, he meant to criticize the lack of cultural and theological engagement among evangelicals. I agree there is a scandal involving the evangelical mind, though I understand the problem in the exact opposite way. It is not that there is no mind, but rather that there is no evangelical.

The kingdom of God, then, is the good news that the right rule of God, and the right rule of man—a rule our ancestors Adam and Eve lost—have come together in the right rule of one right God-man: Jesus of Nazareth. In his sin-resisting life, his wisdom-saturated teaching, his demon-exorcising power, his substitutionary, conquering death, and his justifying, victorious resurrection, Christ is king.

As Wittgenstein demonstrated, we cannot live, even at the level of everyday life, without trusting. And yet trust is a theologically ambivalent starting point for a theory of knowledge because of the persistent untrustworthiness of human beings after the Fall. Not only have the noetic effects of sin crippled our perceptions, they have given us reason to doubt the motives of others.

From a grammatical point, it seems clear that this is the right interpretation of vs. 38 which simply says in the Greek “he said to them ‘Enough’!”  It does not read “Two swords are enough”. What we have here is an idiomatic expression used to close off a discussion.

Incorporating Lyotard’s Narratives: How Does the Gospel Stand Out?

[This is a guest post by Andy Peloquin and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

James K. A. Smith in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? outlines the implications of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of postmodern as the “incredulity toward metanarratives” on Christianity.  Smith states that Lyotard’s definition has been “bumper stickered” into a misconception of his critique of modernity, especially by Christians who see a threat to the Christian narrative of God’s overreaching purpose found in scripture.  He states that this misconception is to be found in misunderstanding what Lyotard means by metanarrative.  It is often thought to regard a story great in scope, but Smith indicates that this was not Lyotard’s concern.  Rather it was the nature of the narrative’s claims: “metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason.” (65)  Thus there exist grand stories in non-modern periods but the distinguishing fact in modernism is legitimization to a universal.  This concept of legitimacy is what Smith indicates is the focal point for Lyotard to demark between modern and postmodern.  For modernity, it is science (universal reason) that legitimates its claim. Science is in opposition to narrative which does not attempt to legitimize its claims but only declare them in a story (65).  This point is important for Smith to draw out in order to claim that Lyotard’s denunciation of metanarratives is good for the church.  In brief summary, Smith indicates the Church has co-opted the modern methodology and so attempts to rationalize scripture through the use of reason.  Instead the church should simply proclaim the narrative of scripture on its own terms without worrying about legitimization.  Thus the church can legitimately speak of the grand story of scripture on its own grounds without compromising that story.  The problem that Smith notes, however, is that you then have a plurality of these narratives which are in themselves all legitimate, with none able to appeal to a higher judge of legitimacy.

How does this then affect our proclamation and defense of the gospel?  Smith critiques what he calls the classic view of apologetics as being modern in its use of reasoning.  He advocates for a ‘presuppositional’ style in which all presuppositions are laid out and then the gospel is proclaimed in its narrative through the power of the Holy Spirit.  I think this is the greatest difficulty to overcome and I was a little disappointed in the lack of explanation/exposition of this.

If the Christian story is one of many other equally legitimate stories and there cannot be an appeal to a higher judge to show one better than the other, than how can we speak clearly the message of the gospel among so many voices?  I like Smith’s appeal to the Holy Spirit but I would have liked a more robust defense and explanation here of what this looks like in the everyday.  What do we do with a culture (such as in Portland) that evaluates all these stories as equally legitimate (‘what works for you’) and/or thinks they are just the same story leading to the same end (religious pluralism)?  What is more, what do we do with this apologetic in the context of a culture (such as Chinese) that already easily syncretizes various religious systems and so would have no problem with accepting the gospel or just parts, into their narrative – especially if they see them as equally legitimate?  How do you adequately address the uniqueness of the Christian faith story as we see given in it (i.e. Jn. 14:6) in this system?

Is Objectivity lost, or just playing hide-and-go-seek? Smith, Derrida, Carson, and maybe even Sailhamer

[This is a guest post by Tim Hankins and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

In the second chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-modernism, Smith argues that Derrida‘s assertion “there is nothing outside the text” is not the villain that the caricaturization by some in the Church have made it out to be. He does so by examining “whether Derrida’s claim that everything is interpretation is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.” Indeed he posits that Derrida’s assertion is appropriate and useful. His argument can be framed in the contrast between his fictional renditions of the events of the cross as seen by two fictitious natives of Jerusalem. The first is from the perspective of a Jew who saw Jesus as a pathetic Nazarene whose followers were deluded, the second from the perspective of a Roman centurion who proclaimed that truly this man is the son of God. He argues that both saw the same events and yet each had differing interpretations of those events. From this model, Smith argues that the Gospels themselves are interpretations and that is a good thing.  Conversely, Smith disagrees with Carson’s argument in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, that if the Gospels are only an interpretation then we can’t know if they are true. Smith pronounces that Carson’s argument “simply conflates truth with objectivity”. He posits that truth does not require objectivity.

I will readily admit that I have not read a translation of Derrida’s On Grammatology in English much less in Derrida’s French, so I have to assume that Smith accurately represents Derrida. Having said that, Smith presents Derrida as arguing against the trend to get at the events behind the text, that the reader’s access to those events is through the text itself, so that “there is nothing outside the text” (p.38). At this point it seems that Derrida is in cahoots with Sailhamer, so that Sailhamer’s Text or Event argument in Introduction to Old Testament Theology is simply a biblical application of Derrida’s principle. Yes the events themselves happened, but scripture is the divine interpretation, the “God’s Associated Press” news articles on (then) current events. This idea does have much to commend it. First and foremost, as Derrida and his sidekick Sailhamer profess, attempts to reconstruct the events from the accounts given in the text miss the point, it is the text that informs us, the text that is inspired, the text that we learn from, not the events. We cannot access the events themselves. We have no window, no fourth dimensional rewind to use to go back and watch the events of which the Bible speaks for ourselves. What is more, even if we did, we might have a very different take than what is written in scripture!  So we necessarily are to rely on the text because it is God’s interpretation on those events, and thus by definition TRUE. Apologetically then this view might provide Christians a way to refute differing claims, other interpretations of the events depicted in scripture; that just because someone else interprets the events differently does not invalidate the divine scriptural interpretation or make it any less TRUE.

I am quite comfortable with Smith’s argument thus far, at least assuming I am correctly understanding and representing him here. But within the larger discussion of subjectivity and objectivity, Smith is identifying the events as the objective, and interpretation of those events as subjective interpretation. Yet it is at this point in his argument that I find Smith’s argument to become a bit . . . squirrely. Up to this point he has pretty solidly used the events as the object, text as subjective interpretation, but without warning he shifts the object to the text (scripture) and the subject to the readers of scripture (p.51 Texts in Community). He suddenly starts “applying” his principle in interpretation of scripture, a distinctly different subject than scripture as the interpretation of events. Yet he does not even camp out here, but the shifts once again (p. 54 Seeing the World through the Word) so that the object is the world and we are the subjects interpreting the things we see, which he argues should be through the interpretive lens of scripture. While objectivity is not necessarily Smith’s main point, he makes enough of an issue about it that I am surprised that he abandons it without much ado.

While I agree that scripture is a TRUE “subjective” interpretation of “objective” events, when we shift things to look at scripture as the object, would scripture not then be “objectively TRUE”? It would seem that Carson’s argument is not necessarily antithetical to Derrida’s (as presented by Smith). They simply have differing objects. Carson (again as presented by Smith) seems to be arguing that when it comes to scriptural interpretation, reading and understanding the Bible, that the authority lies in the object, the Bible. which is TRUE. This means that scripture can be both the subjective divine interpretation of events, without threatening its truth as the object of Christian study. Thus the Bible remains objectively TRUE and subjective interpretation simultaneously.

Does Justifiable Belief Exist? (Reloaded)

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

It seems my first post (Does Justifiable Belief Exist?) misfired. This is a reworking of the same tale to achieved more clarity.

This post is a Christian response to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article, “Epistemology.”  Epistemology is the study of human knowing.  Epistemology generally breaks down knowing into few different categories: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, and knowing propositions.  The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.  All of the positions in the Stanford article agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists.  Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself.  This is my main concern for this post, do justifiable beliefs exist?  Traditionally justifiable beliefs are those ideas that cannot be false, cannot be doubted, and cannot be corrected.  Can humans have justifiable belief?

I’ll summarize the article in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs.  Basic beliefs are justifiable beliefs that don’t need justification from other beliefs.  According to Foundationalism, “I think therefore I am,” is a basic belief.

Coherentism breaks down Foundationalism, fundamentally disagreeing with its premise.  According to Coherentism, all beliefs depend on other beliefs for justification; there are no self-justifying beliefs. To the Coherentist, justifiable beliefs are those beliefs that are held up by web of interconnected beliefs. Justifiable beliefs properly fit within the web, they must be included in a coherent system and cannot contradicts themselves or the web. (It is important to note the moderate [modern] versions of Foundationalism and Coherentism have moved away from a strict definition of justifiable beliefs and have since redefined themselves accordingly.  I’m sticking with the classical forms of these positions because they were concerned with a hard definition of justifiable belief – cannot be false, doubted, or corrected.)

Skeptics do not hold to justifiable belief. They attempt to prove justifiable belief doesn’t exist by claiming something fantastic like, “You can’t know that you have feet.”  They base this on the possibility of radical deception; someone could be in the matrix or in a dream world, etc. and at the same time have no way of knowing they were in such a state.  Since you can’t know you’re not in that situation, you can’t know whether or not you have feet.

The skeptics could not be beat on their own terms.   After the skeptics, the definition of knowing changed.  Contextual knowing and fallible (arbitrary) knowing do not hold to justifiable knowledge as defined in this article.   Find the full discussion here.  If you have trouble following all the terms and positions visit, Wikipedia has a nearly identical summary with accessible resources.

Within the confines of this conversation, I am a skeptic.  I do not believe humans can obtain justifiable knowledge through their experience with the world or with themselves.  I’ll add my critiques to Foundationalism and Coherentism to explain my point.  On the one hand, Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” cannot be build upon without a myriad of presupposition beliefs about what it means to exist or to think. Foundationalism’s founder Descartes built upon this idea and somehow came up with Catholic Christianity. Anyone else who builds upon this idea will come up with something different based upon their prior beliefs.  In addition, the phrase adds nothing to the epistemological conversation.  The conversation starts with the belief in propositional knowledge which requires a belief in the ability to think and a belief in our existence.  Therefore, Foundationalism’s foundational belief does not lead us to even one justifiable belief.  Coherentism, on the other hand, creates a web of interconnected ideas that do not conflict, but there is nothing to say the entire web is right or wrong.  There is nothing to ground the web into justifiable belief.  Further, one cannot point to the boundary of the web.  The web itself would have to be infinite, stretching out in all directions forever.  If there are no boundaries to the web, how could we know the web is attached to reality?

Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world – through their experience with themselves and the world.  To state the obvious: galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world.  If the physical world is all that exists, humanity has no possibility of justifiable belief.  If we are just talking about the physical world, I am a skeptic.  I, however, do not believe in the physical world alone.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/1)

Does Justifiable Belief Exist?

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with humanity’s inability to know. At least, this is my sarcastic conclusion after a brief educational survey of epistemology covered in Stanford’s encyclopedia of philosophy.  Actually epistemology covers a few different ways of knowing: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, or knowing propositions.  The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.

I’ll summarize in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs.  Basic beliefs don’t need justification from other beliefs. Coherentism disagrees, stating that every belief receives its evidence from other beliefs.  For instance, “I think therefore I am,” presupposes a belief that I think and a belief that I could exist.  Or, “I perceived the chair is yellow,” presupposes a belief in the existence of a chair, the belief in a personal ability to perceived, and the belief in the concept of yellow.  Coherentism is critiqued because one can never arrive at a belief; there is an infinite series of beliefs before that belief.  Skeptics jump all the way in and claim something fantastic like, “You can’t know that you have feet.”  They base this on the possibility of radical deception; someone could be in the matrix, or in a dream world, or similarly disembodied and at the same time being in the situation of radical deception would have no way of knowing they were in such a state.  Since you can’t know you’re not in that situation, you can’t know whether or not you have feet.  In order to defeat the skeptics, the definition of knowing underwent changes.  Contextual knowing and fallible knowing are put forth as potential skeptic killers.   Find the full discussion here.  If you have trouble following all the terms and positions visit, Wikipedia has a nearly identical summary with accessible resources.

Simply put, I’m a skeptic.  I found all the other positions too vulnerable to devastating critique.  Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” is perceptual knowledge based on existence can only be understood by appealing to someone’s perception of their own existence.   If we all believe that we exist, but we could all be wrong.  If no one existed, no one would know.  If we base our knowledge of existing on our perceived existence all we are left with is perceived existence not justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected).

Coherentism finds the truth but can’t accept it.  I believe Coherentism discovers the true reason why justifiable belief doesn’t exist, because belief is based upon belief to an infinite or at least unknowable/undiscoverable degree.  Coherentism wants to build justifiable belief on a web of interconnected ideas, only they missed the web and fell into a bottomless chasm.

Contextual knowing, in my mind, changes the whole topic of discussion.  We take the problem of the existence of justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) as a universal human question dealing with propositional knowledge and instead ask, “Can we have justifiable belief in a smaller group of humans controlled by selective ignorance?”  In a group of similarly ignorant and mentally disabled patients there might be a belief that can’t be proven false or doubted within the same group.  However, that same belief has the possibility of being corrected.  Either way, we are no longer talking about universal human knowing; we are discussing group knowledge.  This group knowledge is only justifiable belief in propositional knowledge if it isn’t challenged.  I find this view ignores the fact that we live in the age of world-wide communication and information.  An argument starting with ignorance and ending with a positive result is a poor argument indeed.

Fallible knowledge is also not a response to the same question.  Fallible agrees with the skeptics, in so far as they agree infallible knowledge is impossible.  This is just another way of saying justifiable belief does not exist, but belief does exist.  They seek to have justified beliefs based on knowledge’s inability to be justified.  To believe in fallible knowledge is to believe in nothing more than the usefulness of belief itself.

All of the positions agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists.  Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments (in my mind) are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself.  Can humans have justifiable belief?  I say no.  I say no with a caveat.  Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world.  Galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world.  If these things were all that existed, humans would have no possibility of justifiable belief.  I however, do not believe the above things mentioned are all that exist.  (I’m leaving myself an opening for later.)  Is your belief justifiable?

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

Guest Post by Danielle Kahut (Western Seminary Student)

A critical dimension in the theological discussion, whether emphasis shall be placed on the objective study of Scripture or the subjective experience of the individual, has its roots in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Diogenes Allen and Eric O. Springsted only loosely allude to this philosophy-to-theology link in their later chapters. It is of such importance that it needs to be emphasized.

Allen and Springsted do highlight the clear connection between Hume’s philosophy and Kant’s categories. Hume had used the fact that there is no observable link between ‘causes’ and ‘effects’ to say that the entire empiricist enterprise (the philosophical endeavor to ground knowledge on the foundation of experience) was fruitless and would therefore never produce any ‘true knowledge.’ This view, referred to as Humean skepticism, Kant felt a burden to answer.

Unlike the philosophers who had come immediately before him, Kant did not believe that experience was the source of knowledge; however, he did believe that knowledge begins there. The external sensations (touch, taste, smell, etc.) are significant because they arouse our thinking; Kant calls this first stage on the way to knowledge experience. Our reason, Kant said, cannot go beyond these experiences and arrive at true knowledge on its own; instead, our reason categorizes and makes sense of our experiences. Kant posits twelve categories that shape and filter man’s understanding of his experiences (for a good chart on these categories visit the following link: This second stage, in which our categories process and interpret our experiences, Kant calls conception. The third state, knowledge, comes as a result of the forming of the raw data of experience via our categories.

This discussion of the twelve categories, and how they interact with our sense-experiences, is significant because it shifts the center of knowledge from the external world to the mind. Thus knowledge is no longer ‘objective’ in that it is independent of man, but ‘subjective’ in that it is wholly dependent on man and his processing of his experiences. This aspect of Kant’s philosophy soon had a major impact on theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher was primarily responsible for shifting the source of dogmatics from the objective study of Scripture to the subjective study of Christian religious feeling. He perceived the traditional subjects of dogmatics—God, Creation, Preservation, Salvation, Regeneration—through the subjective lens. Although the return to objective theology began on the continent over 100 years ago (cf. Hermann Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics) the shift has yet to take hold in the United States. To understand theology, especially to understand the cultural constructs which shape the current theological climate, we must understand that this turn to the subject (individuals feelings being a source of knowledge) began back in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

How does language affect the way we think?

In a recent NYT article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” Gary Deutscher addresses the question of whether our native language affects the way that we think about the world. The article begins with a very nice discussion of  Whorf’s (not the Klingon) original theory that a person’s native language constricts their ability to think in certain ways. You may have encountered this, for example, in the popular notion that Hopi Indians cannot think in terms of past/present/future because their language has no tense – i.e., it is an entirely aspectual language. Deutscher points out that this theory “crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims.” As he points out, there is a pretty basic fallacy in this theory: “The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept.” But, we simply don’t work this way. We are perfectly capable of understanding a wide range of concepts for which we have no specific word or grammatical structure in our native langauge.

But, the fact that Whorf’s original theory had some serious flaws does not mean that our native language might not still exercise some influence on the way that we think about the world. So, Deutscher draws on the work of Roman Jakobson to contend, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” In other words, our native language does not prevent us from thinking about any given concept, but it may cause us to focus on and highlight particular things in ways that can affect how we view the world. He specifically focuses on how the gender and spatial aspects of  a native language can nuance a person’s thinking in important ways. Again, this does not mean that our native languages comprise uncrossable boundaries, necessarily preventing us from understanding foreign concepts. But it does highlight the ways in which we use language to conceptualize and construct the world around us.

I’d encourage you to read the whole article if you’d like a nuanced take on how the way that you’ve learned to speak can impact the ways in which you understand the world around you. Language does not create reality, but it does shape it in important ways.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/23)