By Robert C. Kurka
In the previous article, we observed that a new wave of “post-conservative” theology has made its mark in both the academy and the church. In large part, this nonfoundationalist approach was given shape by the 2001 book Beyond Foundationalism, coauthored by Stanley Grenz and John Franke. This defining work contributed a number of helpful insights to those committed to making an impact upon the postmodern world, not the least being a necessary caution that a previous generation’s preoccupation with “proving the Christian faith” may actually betray an unintended concession to a non-Christian worldview (modernity).
For a movement such as ours that was germinated in an environment of commonsense realism, this counsel is a helpful reminder that truth claims are more complicated—and subjective—than was thought by a culture that placed a high premium on human reason.
As we have already noted, the Grenz and Franke proposal has some very commendable features to it, but it is also fraught with a number of serious problems that should caution forward-thinking restorationists not to be too enthusiastic about eating the fruit from this postmodernist tree. This week and next I will cite four areas where Beyond Foundationalism encounters critical difficulties: (1) the Bible itself; (2) church history; (3) philosophy (especially epistemology); and (4) missions and evangelism.
While one can heartily agree with contemporary critics that objectivity is far more elusive than modernists once thought, the notion of an “objective reality”—an ontology that is true for all peoples and cultures—is a belief that well predates modern times. In fact, it seems to be grounded in the very opening words of Scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Apart from whatever preconceptions of the cosmos human beings may have, there is an objective status to reality, since it is the vast, but limited product of an unlimited, eternal God.
Thus, all things not God are finite, limited, and knowable to the divine creation that is uniquely his image, human beings (Genesis 1:26-28). Furthermore, the “dominion mandate” (1:28), as well as Adam’s charge to name the animals (2:19, 20), suggest that there is a discernible order to creation that humans should and can decode, in difference to the postmodernist contention that reality is some kind of arbitrary construction. Clearly these opening chapters of Scripture express a type of realism, and humans are capable of discerning things the way they really are because they are imago dei.
This cannot be confused with the foundationalist view of knowledge that Grenz and Franke rightly oppose. This Enlightenment-spawned realism placed supreme confidence in the autonomous reason of the human observer, whereas the biblical narrative begins with a “speaking” God who communicates through intelligible speech and creation. Consequently, in contrast to the unfounded arrogance of modernity, the Genesis account reminds us that we who are God’s image are still ourselves, creatures, who even in our pre-fall “perfection” would spend a lifetime expanding our knowledge of our Maker and his world.
In fact, human knowledge will always be in a state of development, even in the “new earth” that gives us unmitigated access to the triune God (compare Revelation 21:22-27). The major problem with modern conceptions of truth is not to be found in their belief in “foundations,” per se, but rather in their assumption that finite human beings possessed godlike knowledge.
In fact, something like modernity’s version of foundationalism is actually seen in Satan’s invitation to Eve to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), implying that there is knowledge to be acquired without reference to the Lord. The subsequent narratives of Cain (Genesis 4), the flood (Genesis 6-8), and Babel (Genesis 11) only serve to reinforce an important cosmic reality: Human beings do a horrible job of playing God.
This “God-prompted” understanding, then, is unquestionably reflected throughout the entire Old Testament (see, for example, Isaiah’s magnificent “creation theology” in Isaiah 40:25, 26; 42:5; 44:24, etc.), producing an understanding of reality that was to set Israel apart from her neighbors who viewed life through local myths instead of the grand, global work of the one true God.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul assumes that the reality of an independent, eternal God is a truth available to all human cultures as they observe his creation (Romans 1:19, 20). Sadly, because of our sin, we fail to see what God considers obvious (vv. 22, 23). This universal access to truth (both general and special revelation), then, becomes the basis for a gospel that can be intelligibly communicated to any human culture (see Acts 17:22-31).
Thus, according to the Bible, truth-talk does not originate in modernity but in the “talk” of the true God. Moreover, “Truth” is his name (John 14:6).
The nonfoundationalist contention that “truth-talk” is Enlightenment in derivation is also challenged by the record of church history—the nearly 17 centuries of Christian story that unfolded prior to modernity.
As Paul’s aforementioned speech in Athens so eloquently demonstrates, it is the lack of this “God-first” starting place that created the confusing perspectives seen in the numerous idols as well as the Epicurean and Stoic philosophies (Acts 17:22, 23). In short, the Greek pursuit of truth that began with human reason (similar to later modernity) could only result in a frustrating relativism where one “religion” was no better or worse than another.
Paul’s “good news” is that God, himself, has initiated the communication process to searching human beings: first, in creation, then in his sovereign rule over the nations, and finally culminating in his self-disclosure in the man whom he has raised from the dead (v. 31). This “final revelation” now renders human “ignorance” of God null and void (v. 30). This same person (Jesus) will also judge all humanity at the end of time (v. 31). The Areopagus address lays out a “truth structure” that in turn, will make possible many of the cultural developments produced by the church: (1) the capacity to express the Christian faith in timeless doctrine (theology); and (2) the development of modern science. I wish to briefly comment on the latter.
Contrary to the popular mythology of our day that pits science and Christianity as irreconcilable enemies, history clearly reveals the origin and early growth of science took place in the learning centers of Christianity. The Christian understanding of reality, alone, could account for an intelligibility in creation that could transcend human constructions.
Ironically, as modern science increasingly began to detach itself from God and locate its confidence in the finite human, it would begin to sow the seeds of its own demise as a discipline. Without “the beginning,” why should we assume there is structure in this cosmos? And if there is, why should we believe that human beings are reading it right? The roots of today’s postmodern “anti-science” movement (i.e., “science is simply a Western perspective”) were planted more than two centuries ago when the basis of one’s confidence about the universe was transferred from a faith in an infallible God to fallible man.
In the final article in this series, next week, I will conclude by looking at two more areas where Beyond Foundationalism encounters critical difficulties: philosophy (especially epistemology), and missions and evangelism.
Robert C. Kurka is professor of theology and church in culture at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary. This three-part article represents a revision of the author’s more technical essay that appeared in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. (See Robert C. Kurka, “Before ‘Foundationalism’: A More Biblical Alternative to the Grenz/Franke Proposal for Doing Theology,” JETS 50:1 [March 2007] 145-65).