Breaking it off with Scripturalism

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.

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