Learning About Presuppositions

“First of all, it is valuable for an exegete or a theologian to be aware of the role of basic commitments or presuppositions in the formation of knowledge. Kuhn and others alert us to the fact that such basic commitments or presuppositions do exist.2 Exegesis and theological reflection always take place against the background of fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world. They are always motivated by values that a biblical interpreter holds dear. Both methods and results are evaluated in terms of standards and epistemological values already presupposed by the interpreter.

At this level, there can be no neutrality. No one evaluates methods or results without standards of evaluation, whether these be explicit or implicit. And not everyone cherishes the same values or the same standards! Often, indeed, there is some overlap in different people’s standards. But there are very often subtle differences as well. For example, compare two groups of historical standards: (1) historical standards used by advocates of historical-critical method; (2) historical standards used by scholarly evangelicals who view history as the domain of God’s providential and occasionally miraculous action. People in both groups are alert to the importance of weighing human testimony and not being credulous. To a degree, both would agree about the psychological and social likelihood of certain kinds of human behavior in certain circumstances. But they differ about what kind of evidence makes miracles credible, because their views of the limits of the world and the prerogatives of historical method differ. Behind this difference, their beliefs differ concerning what allegiance to God requires of someone engaged in intellectual reflection.

Some people who have become aware of their basic commitments use it as an excuse for complacency. They think that since everyone is committed to something, they have as much right to their commitments as anyone else. Since basic commitments are indeed basic, they supposedly need be defended, refined, or fought over. But precisely because basic commitments are basic, it is important that people have the right ones. These commitments will affect everything that they do. And though they may do some helpful things in spite of bad basic commitments (common grace), what they do will be tainted by bad basic commitments.

Even we who have Christian commitments must not be complacent. We know that our motives are contaminated by sin. Sometimes when we are sinful in our motivations and assumptions, we are aware of it. But other times, even when we are missing the mark, we may easily deceive ourselves into thinking that our basic commitments are fully biblical, fully in accord with God’s standards.

So we must remember: the Bible is infallible, but our own understanding of the Bible is not. Hence some practice of critical self-doubt, in the light of the Bible’s searchlight, is in order. As long as this doubting criticizes ourselves, rather than doubting God, or doubting the Bible as God’s word, we are acting in conformity with Christian standards.

Moreover, we cannot be complacent about persuading others to adopt our basic commitments. Unfortunately, sometimes people do become complacent. They argue that since each person evaluates evidence in the light of their basic commitments, it is useless to argue with anyone. Others will just use their own standards. They will not accept any argument given on the basis of Christian standards.

Basic commitments are indeed at stake here. Arguments with non-Christians are frequently not easy. We are sometimes tempted to give up or to compromise by adopting standards based on alien basic commitments. So how do we remain persuasive while not compromising? Whole books are needed to deal with these issues.3 But we should note here a few simple elements in the solution. Everyone lives in God’s world, and no one can escape that world or the knowledge of God that impresses itself on creatures in God’s image (Rom. 1:18-22). Argument is not futile, because the facts are on our side, the standards that are truly legitimate are on our side, and–most of all–the Holy Spirit works to break down people’s resistance to the truth.

Moreover, people can also be challenged concerning the idolatrous character of their basic commitments. Whenever people have basic commitments to anything other than God and his word, they are practicing a subtle form of idolatry. They are often attempting to escape responsibility to submit to God. Christ died in order to free us from these sins as well as others. We may command people to repent of these sins just as the apostles commanded people to repent.

But awareness of basic commitments has relevance for more than just carrying on argument. The fundamental value of this awareness is that it enables us to evaluate our own work and the work of others on more than one level. We can evaluate people’s work both in terms of the basic commitments that motivate it and in terms of the value of its individual parts and details. Sometimes both the basic commitments and the details are good. Sometimes both are bad. But other combinations occur as well. Sometimes sloppy work comes from people with good commitments. Sometimes high quality work comes from people with bad commitments. Sometimes there is a complex mixture of good and bad in several areas.

Awareness of the influence of basic commitments makes us better able to discern the effects that good or bad commitments have had on scholarly work, and so to make adjustments. We will not be swept off our feet by a highly insightful work showing effects of bad commitments. We will be able to learn from the insights while noticing places where the bad commitments have infected the product. Conversely, we will not be impressed by mediocre work from those with good commitments. We will be able to honor the good commitments that a person has, while not ignoring the faults of the product.

Finally, awareness of the importance of basic commitments and their resistance to refutation should make us all the more aware of our finiteness and of our need for divine verbal revelation from the Bible. We never rise above our basic commitments. They control us and our interpretation more than we control them. In particular, human beings determined to escape from God’s authority and to be their own gods can generate basic commitments, but they do so merely by projecting their own finite guesses into the infinite. They make idols that subsequently enslave them. To reform and purify our basic commitments from our sin and idolatry, we need a clear word from God expressing the content of the standards, a divine power of the Spirit transforming us, and a divine Savior from God cleansing us. In other words, we need just the richness of salvation that the message of Scripture promises and bestows.”

(Poythress, Science and Hermeneutics)

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