Skip to content

Fr. 736

November 3, 2016

E.J. Spode’s recent essay at 3am magazine opens with an everyday subject of provocation, the Trump phenomenon, and attempts to supply an explanation for why his anti-intellectual rhetoric has so resonated with elements of the religious right. In order to arrive at that explanation, the author first deems it necessary to sketch a genealogical account of Protestant and Evangelical thought and epistemology before delivering on said explanation.

After a brief introduction, Spode begins the tale:

The sanitized story about Protestantism that has been passed down to us is that it represented a revolt against corruption in the Church and brought a focus on Biblical writing rather than Church traditions as a source of authority. And it was indeed about those things. Partly. But more than that it was a revolt against an idea, espoused by Saint Aquinas, that we can come to know nature without the aid of religion (in the insider terminology, we can understand nature without the help of grace). The idea that part of the world that could be known and understood without aid of religion helped ignite the Renaissance but was an idea that Calvin in particular could not tolerate. In his view, separation of grace and nature would lead to no end of troubles; every aspect of our lives (science, culture, etc.) needed to be brought under religious control.

This sanitized story indeed has considerable cultural currency in the contemporary academy and media, as Spode calls attention to several prominent examples. To that list one could also add the likes of J.S. Mill in On Liberty‘s section on thought and discussion wherein the author praises the Reformation’s openmindedness. Yet, were this account to limit itself to offering historical considerations which show the necessity of mending habitual views of the Reformation, that account would largely lack in interest for the contemporary reader. For what reason does this tale concern said reader?

For Spode, the tale rests on its epistemological core: knowledge of the world cannot be uncoupled. Moreover, that core adapts itself to a distinctly American setting with the onset of the 20th century. The author continues the tale:

In the early part of the 20th Century – beginning with the Scopes Monkey Trial — the movement began to metastasize and began to exercise its natural anti-intellectual proclivities in the culture at large. As with many forms of cancer, this one metastasized slowly, and it’s growth went largely unremarked and unnoticed… until now. And now? Now it is serving as the driving engine in the rise of American anti-intellectualism, and, if you bother to look at actual details, you come to understand quite a bit about contemporary American culture.

From that origin, the basic epistemological lesson, no knowledge of the world outside of religion, finds a new audience within 20th century American society, particularly at the level of evangelical seminaries. Therein, that lesson will acquire further depth and breadth to the point that “knowledge of the world” will become “knowledge” tout court and, in time, rational thought itself. So does the possibility of thought become joined at the hip to religion, for the luminaries of mid-20th century evangelicalism. Spode states as much:

But the Church is not merely the sole repository of truth. It is also the sole repository of “rational thought” period. Thus, van Til argued that rational thought is only possible within the framework of Christian presuppositions.

The reason for this expansion in scope goes back to the initial stage of the tale, at least as the author sees it. For that expansions follows from a distinctly Calvinist epistemological view:

This idea is tied up in the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity; sin makes it impossible to reason clearly. When man fell in the Garden of Eden, it was not just man’s ethical will that fell – his intellect fell too! It follows (once you drink the Kool-Aid) that all rational thought presupposes a belief in the basic tenants [sic] of Christianity. To put it bluntly, if you aren’t the right kind of Christian you can’t be rational.

Dangerous though this epistemological view may seem, the reader may wonder whether anything more follows from it other than a distinctively evangelical set of presumptions about knowledge. Certainly, that set of presumptions may lead evangelicals or fundamentalists to reject certain tenets of science insofar as they do not set out from the right place. But it may also seem that the practical effect of such rejection is unlikely to extend beyond the strict bounds of that particular community. In other words, if nothing comes of their epistemological take on grace, the view does not merit refuting.

It is at precisely this point in the tale that Spode takes care to show in just what way that epistemological view is practically efficacious. Indeed, it becomes overtly political in the notions of theonomy and autonomy:

van Til also argued that the Church was the sole repository for law and morality. This is the doctrine known as “theonomy” – in contrast to “autonomy” – the idea is that moral laws can only come from God, they cannot come from man or exist independently of God. Thus the only genuine moral law was Mosaic Law – the Ten Commandments and other elements of Old Testament law. Any other law or ethical principles would be pseudo laws and principles. This is why, for some Evangelicals, it is a BID [sic] DEAL that monuments to the 10 Commandments be in our courthouses and schools.

The notion of “autonomy” serves as one of the guiding lights of most modern political institutions. If that notion no longer has currency with a particular group, it follows that neither do the political institutions in question. But Spode must still show just how far that renunciation of institutions goes.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: