Epistemological Self-Consciousness, Intellectual Theonomy

What kind of a worldview does a wren exhibit when it sees the neighbor’s cat crouching in preparation to pounce and flies to the nearest telephone line? Is the bird’s knowledge of the feline species somehow diminished because he can’t theorize about his knowledge of cats and their objects of backyard prey?

What about a baseball player who can spot the difference between a curve and a four-seam fastball, all within a nanosecond, and swing his bat while uncoiling his body to launch the baseball into the right field stands? If the batter can’t explain his theory of hitting, if the Phillies won’t hire him when he retires to be a hitting coach, does that make his knowledge of crushing mistake pitches illegitimate? Does every batter have to be a Ted Williams for his hits to be certain and his runs-batted-in certified? Did Richie Allen not win the American League MVP for 1972 because he could not theorize about what he did in the batter’s box?

I have contemplated these two sets of questions recently while continuing my reflections on neo-Calvinism, worldview thinking, and a certain sector of the Reformed world’s infatuation with philosophy. Countless times I have encountered the argument that someone’s knowledge is not really knowledge because they have no epistemological foundation for it. The public high school teacher may be able to teach algebra but because she doesn’t know where the truths of math come from, she doesn’t really understand math. Or the elected official may understand that human life should be protected and vote for harsher penalties for manslaughter but unless he understands that human beings are created in the image of God, his vote is inauthentic.

Perhaps the best bumper sticker expression of this outlook comes from the Greg Bahnsen quotation that adorns Rabbi Bret’s blog:

In various forms, the fundamental argument advanced by the Christian apologist is that the Christian worldview is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. When the perspective of God’s revelation is rejected, then the unbeliever is left in foolish ignorance because his philosophy does not provide the preconditions of knowledge and meaningful experience. To put it another way: the proof that Christianity is true is that if it were not, we would not be able to prove anything.

But as the two examples above indicate, creatures have knowledge and understanding of the created order all the time without being able to give a theoretical account of such ideas or activities. Why isn’t knowledge of math and batting the human equivalent of the instincts and cunning that birds show when fleeing cats? Granted, human beings are more than natural; we have souls, minds, language capacities. But even these higher ranges of human existence are part and parcel of the way human beings operate on planet earth. Those higher ranges are natural to human beings. I see no compelling reason why we need to spiritualize of philosophize human activities that are simply analogous to what other creatures do.

Some neo-Calvinists and theonomists will object that such an understanding of human activity denies God and the relationship that all people have with him by virtue of creation. In other words, human beings should do everything that they do to the glory of God. To fail to connect the dots between algebra and doxology is to operate in a world of autonomy from God.

One possible response is to say that God may be as delighted by the batter’s ability to hit the ball as he is by the wren’s capacity to elude the cat. Which is to say that human beings in their creatureliness, in the games they play, the poems they memorize, the bridges they build, and the voyages they take, delight God because he created human beings precisely with the capacity to do these things. And if all of creation can praise to God, from the movement of the stars to the way cats clean themselves, then why can’t human life in its naturalness also give God glory as creator whether or not a human being is engaging in eating or playing or learning self-consciously to the glory of God. Why can’t it be the case that even despite the sinful natures that afflict all people, their existence and range of activities as created beings delight God simply as the fulfillment of his creation and providence in the same way that creatures without souls also give glory to God in accomplishing the ends for which they were created?

Of course, the paleo-Calvinist answers to these questions seem plausible to this paleo-Calvinist, but I would also venture an example from the spiritual world that could throw a wrench into the seemingly perpetual philosophical motion machine of neo-Calvinists. Aside from the batter or the wren, what about the regenerate believer who can’t tell the difference between Plato and Kant? What about the Christian who is not given to self-consciousness? Is his plumbing any less valuable or virtuous because he can’t conceive of a philosophically coherent system that will explain how his knowledge of the leak and his experience with fixing such leaks depends upon the ontological Trinity? If he simply begins his day asking for God’s blessing, thanks God for strength and sustenance, goes about his job, provides for his family, and leads family worship – that is, if he simply goes about his routine and seeks to honor his maker, but cannot fathom the theories that would turn his activities into the self-actualized doings of an epistemologically self-conscious believer, does that make his knowledge of plumbing, his love of family, and his enjoyment of pizza invalid?

I hope not.

At Least Theonomists Are Consistent (well, maybe not)

I participated yesterday in my first interview on my new book (all about me, remember), From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, yesterday on a local Detroit Christian radio station. The host was gracious but unfortunately we talked much less about the book than about his and my own differences over theology and politics. One take-away from the exchange was that many evangelicals, if this host is representative, think they are political conservatives simply because they are conservative Christians. No matter that American conservatives have been discussing the boundaries of the Right for over fifty years in such outlets as the National Review, Modern Age, or the American Conservative, a conversation led initially by the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk. I actually invoked Michigan’s own Kirk yesterday, twice. And I don’t think it had any effect. Evangelicals seem to believe they are conservative because they follow the Bible and it doesn’t faze them that folks like Kirk and Buckley let the Bible seldom if ever enter into their considerations of conservatism.

The most frustrating part of the interview was the phenomenon I have repeatedly observed here and at other blogs — the appeal to Scripture selectively. As readers might well imagine, the interviewer was opposed to abortion and gay marriage, as am I, and believed that biblical teaching should be followed by the U.S.A. I responded with a question about the commandments that precede the sixth and seventh (fifth and sixth for the Protestant-challenged) and the answer distinguished between America as a republic and not a theocracy. Evangelicals believe that their designs have nothing to do with theocracy even when they follow a book that does describe a polity that at the very least had theocratic aspects.

The frustration escalated when I brought up the example of Michele Bachmann who is receiving questions about the place of her husband in the White House should she win the election. Biblical teaching does require women to submit to their husbands and so journalists, whether for gotcha reasons or not, do have plausible reasons for asking how Bachman’s evangelical faith would square her political power with the Bible’s call for wifely submission. (This is the same kind of question, by the way, that journalists put to Morman and Roman Catholic politicians who seemed to be under obligation to authorities in competition with the U.S. Constitution.) The response, quite sensible, was to distinguish the spiritual aspects of Bachman’s life from her political responsibilities. But if you can do that with Bachmann’s marriage, why can’t you do so with the civil institution of marriage more generally? After all, if biblical teaching demands that marriage be between a man and a woman (which it does lest anyone think I’ve gone soft), why aren’t evangelicals also calling for policy and legislation that would enforce biblical teaching about divorce, or about the way Paul describes the relationship between a husband and a wife? Also, if you are going to appeal to the Bible for certain aspects of public policy, is it really bad form for journalists to inspect Scripture to see how far such appeal will take a candidate? Saying that suggestions that evangelicals are theocrats is silly just isn’t much of a defense.

But if you believe in natural law or that the light of nature does reveal certain ethical norms, then it is possible for evangelicals to oppose gay marriage and abortion without appealing to Scripture and bringing up that unfortunate business about women wearing hats.

During the interview I did think that theonomists are more consistent than your average evangelical. Theonomists want all of the Bible to inform public policy, and I also suspect that theonomy gained a hearing in the 1980s as the more consistent, philosophically and theologically compelling, critique of secular politics and secular humanism than what folks like Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer were offering.

And then I actually picked up a book by Greg Bahnsen and had to scratch my head about such consistency. For some reason, Bahnsen was eager to follow Old Testament teaching but drew the line at jihad. Not even general equity could prompt him to embrace God’s reasons for the Israelites purging the promised land of the pagan tribes. “The command to go to war and gain the land of Palestine by the sword,” Bahnsen wrote, “is not an enduring requirement for us today.” How this squares with Bahnsen’s earlier assertion that “God’s law as it touches upon the duty of civil magistrates has not been altered in any systematic or fundamental way in the New Testament,” is a mystery. [By This Standard, pp. 5, 3] After all, the command to go to war against the pagan tribes was hardly a local circumstance but a reflection of God’s holy and righteous opposition to sin and unbelief and a revelation of how he will punish it.

The take away is that the world of biblical politics is filled with inconsistencies. Of course, we all have our problems. But evangelical politicians should at some point not be surprised but expect to receive questions about where the appeal to the Bible begins and ends, that is, in which areas they are prepared to be 1k and in which domains they will follow 2k teaching. Until both Christians and secularists receive such an explanation, political biblicists will continue to be exasperated and exasperating.