Sunday, September 17, 2006

American P.I.E. III

Part I
Part II
Part IV
Part V

This third post in the American P.I.E. series will summarize the rationalistic brand of pietism. This is a subset of pietism in general and for the most part, it describes the epistemological tendencies of some pietists.

Individualism runs throughout. The overwhelming focus is the individual thinking mind with much less importance given to the person living and doing within a community of people and relationships.

Held most strongly by: Particular Baptists, many General Baptists (though less strongly than the Particular Baptists), some Reformed churches (especially those who identify with 17th and 18th century English and Scottish Puritanism), Restoration movement churches, many Bible churches, some non-denominational churches

The great concern of rationalism is: doctrinal impurity, especially the kind that comes from theological liberalism or relativism. Rationalism is largely a reaction against this foe.

Core Assumptions:

1. modernist epistemology: Which basically tries to transcend the world of space, time, and creaturely finitude.

1.1 epistemological basics: Holds to an impersonal theory of truth (e.g., correspondence or coherence theories of truth) instead of seeing truth first and foremost as a Person (cf. John 14:6). Also typically holds to a foundationalist view of epistemology whereby some ideas are self evident, indubitable, and self-justifying. All other beliefs are justified in a linear fashion by either direct or indirect reference to this foundation. Additionally, a strong subject-object dichotomy is posited whereby neither the subject nor the knowing process is significantly affected by the external world. This appears as follows…

1.2 Knowing subject: The knowing subject is Descartes’ “I am,” the isolated, mature, and self-sufficient thinker (cf. the understanding of personal identity under the general description of pietism). The project of knowing begins with him and he is the final reference point for prediction.

1.3 objects of knowledge: The objects of knowledge are abstract, impersonal propositions as they reflect, in a mirror-like way, the external world. Gaining knowledge is all about propositions, evidence, and proofs. It is an impersonal, nonphysical, nonaesthetic, and abstract exercise. Personal relationships are secondary at best even though the Bible regularly uses the word ‘know’ in this personal, relational sense.

1.4 methodology and goals/results: The only truly legitimate models for thought are the mathematician (“rationalistic rationalism”) and/or the Baconian scientist (“empirical rationalism”). These are the only ways whereby a significant amount of true knowledge may be obtained (e.g., personal relationships or poetry are not thought of as good/primary models of knowledge). The knowing subject is to study the world in a detached, objective manner. The goals are to obtain objective, immediate knowledge and avoid/eliminate uncertainty and imprecision. Knowledge must be immediate and certain if it is truly to be knowledge.

2. systematization: Systematization (and systematic theology in particular) is the paramount and controlling principle of organization. The Bible as poetic narrative, typology, and/or history is given much less focus. Almost all of the important terms are abstract, systematic terms (e.g., election, regeneration, justification, sanctification) and almost all of the important debates are debates over systematic categories (e.g., individual salvation, free will, efficacy of the sacraments). Historical context, temporal flow, poetry, and typology all take a small backseat while (sometimes logic-chopping) discussions of an ahistorical, individualistic ordo salutis are ubiquitous.

Some Effects:

1. rationalistic hermeneutic: The mechanics of the text are everything. The basic methodology is that of a scientist who must analyze the raw terms and syntax of the text and arrange the bits of biblical data into a systematic whole. Commonsense realism and Baconianism are the epistemological drivers. The poetry, story, and historical flow of the text often become secondary or tertiary. The vast majority of the Bible was explicitly written as narrative history and poetry, but it is usually read “mechanically,” systematically, and more or less atemporally – as if it were a textbook (or perhaps a jigsaw puzzle, with the various proof texts functioning as pieces to be arranged in the proper order). Moreover, this hermeneutic tends to be minimalistic in how it addresses things like typology and allusions to previous scripture. This is in opposition to the typological way in which the NT regularly quotes/alludes to the OT. This flows from and fits in well with the existentialism that characterizes pietism in general.

2. abstractionism: Some facets or aspects of the Christian life that should be lived out can be turned into abstractions (e.g., justification by trust in a Person can functionally – though never officially of course – become justification by belief in the doctrine of justification by faith). It seems to be commonly assumed that Christians are known by their doctrine whereas Jesus’ statement in John 13:35 gets little emphasis.

3. definition of faith: This follows from pietistic views of personal identity and relationships as well as the views of truth and knowledge just mentioned. Cognitive assent to propositions is the heart of faith. Personal trust is usually seen as an aspect of faith but it is rarely focused on or considered to be the core aspect. Mature intellectual thought is the sine qua non of faith. The view that faith could be trust in a person apart from well-developed thoughts about that person is rejected as irrational.

4. credo-only Church w/ credo-only sacraments: Church membership is defined on the basis of mature thought and confession. At least one and often both of the sacraments are for mature thinkers and confessors alone. This point ties in with the fact that...

5. ritual: Is almost completely useless and in many cases is actually a detriment to be feared. A strong emphasis is placed on thinking and comprehending as they are abstracted and separated from bodily action. The idea that rituals are important or effectual is often met with the charge of “formalism” or with the idea that such rituals must then be viewed as being magical. One’s profession and especially one’s understanding of the propositions and logical connections that make up the ordo salutis (or the system as a whole such as dispensationalism or “the five points of Calvinism”) are what really matters. Thus, the sacraments are usually little more than symbols that function as individual declarations and/or mental reminders of something else.

6. assurance of salvation: Is a significant issue/problem in some circles. This seems to correlate well with the broader problem of epistemological certainly that has characterized modernist epistemology. And just as the modernist ultimately tries to finds certainty by grounding the knowing process in himself and his methodology, so also the rationalistic pietist who focuses on this issue tends to find certainty by turning inward. Certainty (or, often enough, doubt) tends to come from an inspection of one’s sincerity of belief and/or one’s good deeds.

7. daily behavior: Having the correct doctrines and system are critical. The importance of proper interpersonal behavior is sometimes downplayed or neglected. Arrogance and a lack of kindness/grace/courtesy can be overlooked because purity of doctrine is what matters. Because the paradigm is centered around and focused on that which is impersonal, sensitivity to actual flesh and blood persons sometimes suffers.



Blogger Andy said...

Due to no Presbyterian church nearby I am attending a "Reformed" Baptist Church. This series has been helpful at summarizing a great deal of what I have experienced.

9/21/2006 11:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks Derrick. I found your point about the rationalistic hermeneutic in the above article most helpful in a discussion about the NPP I've been having on my blog. I've also greatly benefited from your Galatians article. Thanks a lot.

11/24/2007 4:37 PM  
Blogger Derrick Olliff said...

Thanks Robin. With regard to rationalism, this may also be useful.

11/26/2007 3:25 PM  

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