The Bible and Foundationalism

Foundationalism is a philosophical term for describing how the modern Western world theorizes/ed.  Basically, it means that we form a body of theories from which all bias, falsities, and prejudice has been eliminated, and this forms the foundation of certitude from which we can think.  In Wolterstorff’s terms, “the foundationalist sees the house of genuine science as firmly based on a foundation of certitudes which can be known non-inferentially.”  That is, the foundation upon which we build our knowledge is a foundation that is solid because it is built on certainty.  A scientist believes x theory because x theory is justified by his foundational propositions.  Of course there are different sorts of foundationalistm – soft, hard, etc. – but this has been the dominate way of theorizing in the Western world.

Wolterstorff and others have questioned the legitimacy of foundationalism.  He uses the example of a desk that is brown.  It is not brown to everyone – say the colorblind or those under the influence.  Also, what if the desk comes under a different sort of light that makes it blue?   “Perception does not yield a rock-firm base for our theories.”    Wolterstorff goes on to say that better than certainty for foundational truths is probability.  We can believe that this desk is brown without knowing all the laws that would make the desk seem to be blue.  We can have true knowledge without a body of indubitable foundations, but Wolterstorff says theorizing will have to be nonfoundationalist theorizing.

Can the Bible Save foundationalism?  Wolterstorff says no.  “The Bible…does not provide us with a foundation for theorizing.  Reading and interpreting the Bible is not a procedure for arriving at propositions knowable non-inferentially and indubitably to be true.”  One example he gives: “neither Bohr’s theory of the atom nor its denial can be derived from the Scriptures.”  It may sound pretty radical, but Wolterstorff is simply saying, “Our reading and interpreting of Scripture does not provide us with a body of indubitably known propositions by reference to which we can govern all our acceptance and nonacceptance of theories.”  I think this is a good path to trod in light of postmodernity.  There is a Christian way besides foundationalism that is not equal to postmodernity.

If this kind of thing interests you, I highly recommend Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, which Myron Penner edited.  It is a collection of essays that presents six views on modernity, postmodernity, foundationalism, and non-foundationalism.  I appreciate Vanhoozer’s chapters in it, along with his Drama of Doctrine and Is There a Meaning in This Text? which also interact with foundationalism in a way similar to Wolterstorff.  You may also like the work Vanhoozer edited, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology.

Above quotes taken from Wolterstorff’s Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1976).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

1 thought on “The Bible and Foundationalism”

  1. This reminds me that I need to reread Owen Barfield, who deals with the blue/brown desk phenomenon when he points out that color is not something that can be attributed to things apart from perception (for the whole process of refracting light etc. involves the perceiver) — and that at the atomic level the desk is neither blue nor brown, and is permeable. To speak of ‘probabilities’ of what a thing really is in regard to qualities that require perception seems less rigorous? Especially as an approach to critiquing various theories of knowledge.

    I continue to enjoy and profit from your blog, thank you.


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