Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Descartes: Yes, or No?


Or maybe?

A question, from RMB:

What are ways a Protestant church can become more non-Cartesian in your view?

My response:

I think it would help if the Bible was not taken [solely] in a historical / scientific way throughout. Certainly, much of it is history, but much of it can be read in other ways - even multiple ways.

I think the idea of "proof texts" ("see, this proves it"), is valuable but can be overused. On many topics, there cannot be such certainty, as holders of a different view also have their "proof texts." Jehovah's Witnesses can point to text to demonstrate that Jesus was just a man.

I think more leaning on the early Church fathers would help. We have the work of some who were disciples of the original disciples. For many centuries, they lived in a culture that better understood the times of Jesus while He was on earth. Sola Scriptura is valuable, but interpretation requires context, and these early church fathers lived in the context.

Having said all of that, my experience in both a Protestant church and an Orthodox church has shown me that the latter should do much more teaching of Scripture, beginning with the young.

Those are just some initial thoughts.

A question was asked of Paul VanderKlay, on a similar issue.  Keep in mind as you read through this post, that VanderKlay is a Dutch Reformed pastor and attended Calvin Seminary.  In other words, at least traditionally / stereotypically, he comes out of a denomination as traditional as any Protestant denomination, one where even a painting is not allowed in the church (maybe I am exaggerating a little, but I don’t believe so).  It is all words, no symbolism.

So, the question was about the issues in modern Biblical scholarship, historical positivism, grammatical historicism, etc.  Following are some of PVK’s comments interspersed with my thoughts:

The first thing he goes to is a commentary series, authored by the earliest Church fathers.  It isn’t exactly this: it is a recent compilation of things written by these fathers, organized and sorted by the passages / subjects as if it was written as a commentary.  The key relevant point: he starts by going to the early Church fathers – not Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc.  Not even Augustine (albeit Augustine might be quoted in the book he offered).

One of the things you realize: people have read the Bible in very different ways over the life of the Church, and before the Church in the Jewish tradition.  This evokes a feeling of pluralism.

He notes: we grow up in a tradition and understand the Bible within the context of that tradition: based on this context, we each feel confident in proclaiming that “this is what the passage means.”  But it isn’t the only tradition.  How to evaluate competing histories of interpretation?

He then describes events beginning with Erasmus and his examination of Jerome’s Vulgate when compared to ancient documents.  Suffice it to say, Erasmus found several discrepancies.  Then we have Luther, who leaned on Erasmus and also did his own work, then others who said maybe Luther didn’t get it all right.  Yes, these are translations, but translations lead to interpretation (and vice versa).

Which leads to a sort of pluralism, multiple texts in multiple languages throughout history; even older texts are found, often altering, modifying, or reinforcing that which was understood before.  All of this leads to the question: what is the right answer, the right interpretation, the right understanding?  And many Christians (certainly Protestant) have chosen to answer this through the lens of modernity.

Modernity: science, facts, historical accuracy and verifiability, in accord with the laws of physics.  What Vervaeke earlier described as the Cartesian view; his comments are repeated:

This is the difference between a Cartesian and a theological approach to knowledge, because the Cartesian approach is ‘I don’t have to undergo transformation in fundamentally in who I am in order to know.  I just have to properly organize my propositions.’

But if you go before Descartes, even reading was pursued not informatively but transformatively.  The idea was ‘unless I go through fundamental transformations, there are deep truths that will not be disclosed to me.’  That’s a conformity theory of knowing as opposed to a representational theory of knowing.

And what happens, what I am saying, is that people feel themselves being conformed to the reality of the logos.

The Cartesian view: It’s all propositions, scientifically and historically accurate, testable, factual; the only kind of knowledge is propositional knowledge.  It is a method based on modernity, and many Christians have fallen into playing the game by the modernist’s (ultimately, the enemy’s) rules.

Returning to PVK: so, what happens to Christianity?  The Enlightenment has limited us to propositional knowledge as the only kind of (or, at least, the superior kind of) knowledge.  Christians begin to realize that using the modernist lens is a powerful tool to get at a degree of truth and convince ourselves that there are levels of certainty.  Which, as an aside, really hasn’t done anything to reduce the internal Christian disputes.

This is not to suggest that propositional knowledge should be dismissed or that it is of no use.  It is necessary if we are to engage with others and in the world.  It is necessary if we are to properly understand Christianity (and even have a Christianity to properly understand).  But it isn’t everything. 

So, as modernists said that they will no longer look for propositional truth in the Bible (after all, how could a modernist buy into the six-day creation, the Resurrection of Jesus, miracles, etc.), the Christian fundamentalists, in fear that without propositional truth in the Bible Christianity would dissolve, doubled down.  It is propositional truth all the way through.  In VanderKlay’s words, some of the resultant interpretations of the Bible that these fundamentalists developed increasingly began to look ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the evangelical (VanderKlay’s term) asks: how are the propositions in the Bible to be properly maintained?  For example: How do we understand the first three “days” of Genesis if the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day? 

So, what about inerrancy?  This is kind of the acid test to see how much of a fundamentalist one is, if the context is strictly the modernist frame.  Yet, even at Calvin (and I emphasize “Calvin”) Seminary, PVK would study Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry.  Robert Alter, from the University of California at Berkeley, being taught at Calvin Seminary – and not in an “this is all terribly wrong” manner.  Either (the stereotype of) John Calvin or Antonio Gramsci (or both) is spinning in his grave.

Narrative and poetry can be equally “inerrant,” as long as one’s lens is not limited to modernity’s propositional knowledge (and setting aside the inherent errancy of translations, beginning with God’s words to the author’s fingers and continuing from there).  “They weren’t thinking like you are,” says PVK.  And, of course, he is right.  It would take tremendous hubris to think otherwise.

As a preacher, the literature stuff (poetry, narrative) was quite helpful for preaching.

People live in stories; they remember stories; the stories shape them and shape their thinking.  We know “the meek shall inherent the earth,” but who can understand precisely, scientifically, how this works when we see the opposite around us every day?  We don’t even necessarily take in the meaning consciously, yet we take it in.  Yet, for many Christians (and atheists who swim in Christian waters), this has shaped behavior in a healthy, loving way.

VanderKlay sees all of this having a drastic impact on Christianity – suggesting that we will see realignments of the magnitude that were found in the Reformation.  My sense of what he is getting at: in the Catholic Church and in Protestant churches (and, likely so in many Orthodox churches) we see widely divergent elements – conservative and traditional vs. liberal and progressive.  Who knows how these divisions might come into play and realign across traditions and denominations?

To further my thoughts: we are living through a civil war in the West.  It can be called a Christian civil war, only because both sides have been strongly shaped by Christianity.  We see churches split along the same cultural lines as the larger population.  These cultural splits might end up being stronger than any doctrinal divisions. 

I think they must be stronger than the doctrinal divisions if some meaningful form of Christianity is to survive in any size.  Ultimately, the dividing line will be natural law – those who advocate for it and find it grounded in Scriptural teaching vs. those who despise it.

Not that natural law is a higher authority than Scripture or God; it is from God, and, therefore, below God.  But it is a language open to believer and non-believer alike – and here we will find another dividing line, as many so-called conservatives are fond of violating natural law daily, and many liberals seem to be searching for it.


  1. "He notes: we grow up in a tradition and understand the Bible within the context of that tradition: based on this context, we each feel confident in proclaiming that “this is what the passage means.” But it isn’t the only tradition. How to evaluate competing histories of interpretation?"

    This is hitting the nail on the head and explains the wide variety of "opinion" among Christians, including those of us who comment here.

    If we would adopt the idea that we do not know it all and that there are things to learn, it would make it easier to lose the dogmatism that dogs so much of what is known as Christian teaching. All of us have things we can learn. I am not so sure that all of us have things we can teach.

    1. "If we would adopt the idea that we do not know it all and that there are things to learn, it would make it easier to lose the dogmatism that dogs so much of what is known as Christian teaching."

      If i consider myself, say 5-10 years ago vs. today, I want to believe this has been my path (transition from dogmatic to humble) - and I hope I demonstrate it.

      Some may consider this demonstrates a lukewarm Christianity. I don't think so. Peter preached the first sermon, and the topic was the Resurrection. 3000 were added to their number.

      I don't say that the rest is detail, but this example cannot be ignored.

    2. I will continue to try to be dogmatic and humble. If you aren't dogmatic in today's world you will compromise with the world. We live in a crooked and perverse generation (as all Christians have ever done). We have to be humble before the world and be open to admitting fault and allowing for difference. But if you leave the door open to the fundamental of the faith, you will be corrupted by the world.

      I know because I am pretty corrupted already. I need to sanctification.

    3. "If you aren't dogmatic in today's world you will compromise with the world."--RMB

      From Merriam-Webster:

      "Definition of dogmatism
      1: the expression of an opinion or belief as if it were a fact : positiveness in assertion of opinion especially when unwarranted or arrogant"

      As if it were a fact. From a position of arrogance.

      I suggest substituting the word "principled" in place of "dogmatic".

      Dogmatism is stiff-necked, stubborn, and bull-headed, even when you know you are wrong. Principle is sticking to your guns when you know you are right, regardless of the opposition against you. Athanasius contra mundum! Was he dogmatic or principled? In the end, his view overpowered all others.

      We should know what we believe and be willing to hold fast to it, BUT...when we are confronted with the possibility that we are wrong, we cannot stubbornly refuse to admit error, which appears to be what you are saying. On that, I am with you.

    4. Roger, I agree with you. When I use dogmatic, I think of it from the basis of what dogma is.

      dog•ma dôg′mə, dŏg′-►
      n. A doctrine or a corpus of doctrines relating to matters such as morality and faith, set forth in an authoritative manner by a religion.

      I meant if I am dogmatic, I had to dogma. But your comments are very correct. There has to be circumspection when alternative views are introduced.

  2. Ironically it was PvK who started me on the road to understanding that JBP is a gnostic charlatan with a Messiah complex. It started when PvK pointed out that JBP lied about the definition of “meek” in the Olivet discourse, then immediately glossed over it. That’s when I finally read Maps which showed me JBP’s madness, and his footnotes which led to the diagnosis. I lost all respect for PvK after that incident.

    Go back and watch JBP’s “Bible” series. He openly admits he read the passages for the first time in the days before each lecture, and that the lectures were in fact a vehicle for teaching his Jungian psych course to a new audience.

    1. I don't believe PVK ever said he lied about this, just that he is wrong.

      As to the rest, both PVK and JBP have their faults (in my eyes, but my eyes might be wrong); I have written about these in the past. What is clear is that each of them have opened the door to many people who are now examining Christianity where in the past they dismissed it. In other words, his lectures were also a vehicle for opening the Bible to a new audience.

      Luke 9: 49 And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us.

      50 And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.

    2. Fair point, it was over three years ago. Peterson was definitely lying though. He plagiarized his definition of meek from Wordsworth ("Though meek and patient as a sheathed sword"), and certainly not from any Greek - or Hebrew! - source.

  3. Fundamentalism was born at the 1897 Summer Niagra Conference, which sought to reinforce the Faith across denominational lines. They decided on the "Five Fundamentals of the Faith", which were:
    1) The Virgin Birth
    2) The Divinity of Christ
    3) Christ's atonning death & resurrection
    4) Christ's physical coming again in power
    5) The inerrancy of scripture
    The idea was to come up with a solid platform that all small-o orthodox Christians could lean on to resist the modernists.
    The first four are in most creeds & confessions.
    The fifth, inerrancy is not.
    Fundamentalism divided on this, not just because these were 100% propositional, but because nobody could agree on what scripture was inerrant about.
    If you look at the history of Protestantism in America, you see the endless emergence of splits & cults, most of which ground themselves in differences of interpretation. "We just want to do things the Bible way." THIS has been the biggest failure of pure propositionalism - endless division, confusion, strife, & grifting.
    The first schism took 1000 years, the second, 500. Now they come about once a year.

    1. "...but because nobody could agree on what scripture was inerrant about. ...THIS has been the biggest failure of pure propositionalism - endless division, confusion, strife, & grifting."

      YES. I am with you, and this is unfortunate.

      Inerrency passes through translations, interpretations, cultural context at the time of events as compared to the context-lens we look through today, and - in reference to each passage - should I read it as art or science/history.

    2. I still agree with those 5 things. I don't think it matters what Scripture is inerrant about. The important thing is to view the Scripture as authoritative.

      I would argue that belief in biblical inerrancy protects a person from simple Cartesian views of Scripture. It is the nonbeliever who looks at the Bible and sees only propositions, of which they think are mainly incorrect.

      Believing the Bible is inerrant places the believer under the God of Scripture and puts us in right relationship to it so that we can be conformed to it or Him. Without believing in inerrancy (in general), the individual is the judge of Scripture and therefore there is no reason to conform to it (Him). It must then conform to you. That is the view of the nonbeliever ultimately.

    3. Inerrancy as to the originals. That is why Protestants are always searching for oldest manuscripts and comparing with later ones.
      English is my second language. By Spanish is my second language. Translations has always been a thing for me. With the Bible, since I became a Christian at 25yo, a have sat in many a Sunday school, even during sermons, where a large percentage of the adults had interlinear Bibles or Bibles with 4 translations.

    4. Oldest, yes. I have also read that the harshest manuscripts are to be valued. Too often, in an attempt to make the message more agreeable, the language was toned down by the translators.

    5. corre tin:

      By now, Spanish is my second language.

      I do not know about "harshest." In my experience the reason was always as verification of later texts.

  4. Kurt Gödel put to death David Hilbert's dream of systematizing all of mathematics -- that is -- propositional logic, with his two incompleteness theorems.

    Protestants didn't get the memo, and/or didn't understand it.

    The very big difference between Protestantism and Catholicism/Orthodoxy is that Protestantism is a religion of (only) symbols and propositions. Catholicism/Orthodoxy has all of that intellectual content, but also has the Sacraments.

    The Sacraments are all *Incarnational*. They are God's grace taking on physical substance. Sacraments impart God's grace to us using physical stuff.

    Protestantism lacks that, being a religion of propositions and ideas to which you must assent. Protestantism lacks incarnationality.

    Catholicism/Orthodoxy has all of those propositions and ideas to which you must assent, but they also have the incarnational sacraments.

    We humans are not merely brains, not merely minds. We also have bodies. We are made of physical stuff. We need a religion that caters to our entire being: physical bodies as well as our minds.

    In addition, going back to Gödel, propositional logic is a dead end due to the well established incompleteness theorems. Propositional logic is not enough. It will never be enough.

    Man does not live by mere propositional logic alone, nor the word (small letter w) of God (the Bible) alone, but by the Word of God (large letter W -- Jesus Himself), who gives Himself to us to eat as food.

    1. Protestantism, for the most part, are not sacramental, may lack "Incarnational" but more fully accepts the Holy Spirit's reality, indwelling in the true believer for his sanctification.