For those familiar with the work of Douglas Campbell, you would be familiar with his Barth-inspired criticism of epistemic foundationalism. Having written extensively about in The Deliverance of God and also in “Apocalyptic Epistemology” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination, Campbell provides another strong indictment against foundationalism in Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love:
A more technical name for the procedure whereby we elevate our own truth criteria over the truth that is God, ultimately to judge God’s truth or falsity, is “foundationalism,” which denotes here our provision of a different foundation for truth from the one that God has laid for us in Jesus, and hence a structure that we ultimately build for ourselves. Foundationalism has a more technical, although related, meaning in modern philosophical discussion, referring primarily to the desire of many thinkers post-Descartes to construct an indubitable basis for knowledge—a foundation in this specific sense. So clearly there is some overlap here. Any such philosophical attempt to construct a perfect foundation for all thought and knowledge is indeed a form of foundationalism. In the light of the revelation of the Trinity, however, we can see that this exercise in human hubris exists in many more forms than philosophical foundationalism alone, and each of these needs to be identified and resisted. Especially since the Enlightenment, Christians have often themselves employed this way of reasoning—for example, by trying to prove the truthfulness of the Bible on the basis of historical records, reason, appeal to universal moral intuitions, or the like, before explaining what the Bible teaches (an effort labeled “evidentialist apologetics”). Yet, every such effort is also, at bottom, an exercise in idolatry. To build a foundation for the truth ourselves is to reject the truth and to build our own version of the truth, which we then make the judge of all truth, and so the lord of truth, at which moment in effect we bow down before it and proclaim it as our new lord. So epistemological foundationalism, however sophisticated, is, at bottom, nothing more than another golden calf.1
Admitting that there is a bit of a differnece between his definition of “foundationalism” and philosphical definition of “foundationalism,” Campbell nevertheless sees fits to include any effort to arrive at truth about God independent of God himself as a form of epistemic idolatry, that substitutes God for something else.
I share some sympathies with what Campbell is describing as I do think there are problem with many forms of “foundationalisms,” but yet I find targeting foundationalism as a class to be a bit of a misfire. Firstly, as Campbell’s arguments against foundationalism has been ostensibly a part of his reading of the apostle Paul, I think such an interpretive move is fundamentally etic. It appropriates Paul to address modern intellectual issues but does not adequately demonstrate the why “foundationalism” is a direct, or even an indirect, target of Paul. To that end, Campbell’s interpretation of Paul is more of a theological exegesis, a quite profound one, but one that lacks the socio-historical plausibility. While most philosophers might agree that ancient Greek philosophy was foundationalist, would this pattern of reasoning have been recognized by Paul, either directly or indirectly, so as to respond to it? While ancient philosophers were sufficiently focused on internal cognition to be able to attempt to give an account of rationality, the ancient Meditteranean world was not focused on the internal contents of thinking and reasoning to even be able to give an account of foundationalism. While Paul is clearly an intelligent figure and in my opinion is aware of many aspects of ancient philosophy, nothing in his letters suggests he has enough awareness about the internal processes of reasoning to be able to identify, much less even recognize, foundationalism.
To that end, I think Campbell’s reading of Paul owes too much to Barth. Barth is a powerful theologian who attempts to take the Scriptures seriously, but his reading of Paul is largely owing to the social, political, and intellectual challenges of his day. Barth’s reading of Romans was “like a bombshell in the theologian’s playground.” The problem with bombs is that they are rather indiscriminate in what they destroy. This is fine and well when one is dealing with a thorough-going evil: one needs to put an end to it without concern for subtly or precision in one’s criticisms. It is quite another thing, however, to build a reading of Paul or generate a widescale critique of epistemology based upon Barth.
To that end, I think a more appropriate criticism is not “foundationalism” writ large, but rather the analogia entis. More particularly, a problem of theological epistemology arises when there is an actionable belief that there are some reliable grounds within creation for knowing God (or about God) via analogy that are not authenticated as being from God. Whether it be natural theology, personal experience, etc., on what grounds do we trust that the object of our understanding can be used to then generate confident beliefs about God?
By contrast, revelation is a divine self-disclosure that makes evident that a specific event (the burning bush), speech (inspired speech) or person (Jesus) can be a reliable source of understanding about God. In the cases of revelation, reliable analogies may be drawn between our understanding of an event, speech, or Jesus and our knowledge of God.2 We can think of revelation as an event that provides the necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, condition for reliably drawing an inference about God via analogy.
I think this account can explain Paul’s discourse in 1 Corinthians 2.9. The content of God’s wisdom is not something that can be understood by human reasoning from what is readily knowable in creation. Whereas the Stoic pantheism suggests that ‘God’ was fundamentally like the observable cosmos, Paul rejects such an analogy between God’s wisdom and creation. While certain properties about God may be knowable from within creation (Romans 1.19-20), God’s eschatological purposes that are made known in Christ crucified are not knowable from within the present order of creation. It is the resurrection of Christ that provides THE analogy of God’s redemption of humanity.
The problem here for Paul is not relying upon some other grounds to secure one’s faith in Jesus. The problem is that, fundamentally, the ontic nature of God’s holiness is not understood within the assumed Stoic epistemology. God’s thoughts are not humanity’s thoughts (Isa 55.8-9). The expectation that God’s purposes in Christ must correspond to some set of expectations, such as the received wisdom based upon the the understanding of the present order of things or the expectation of specific types of signs that God’s power is politically active for the Jewish kingdom analogically similar to past events of Jewish glory in the Maccabean revolt (cf. 1 Cor 1.22-23) is to overlook and ignore the way that God makes Himself and His purposes known. Analogy from past uprising or the present order does not provide a knowledge of God’s purposes, but in fact inhibits the reception of them in the cross.
That Paul understands analogy to be at work can be demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 15.12-19, where he conceptually distinguishes between the resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection. While distinguished, his argument is that the two must hold together. One can not accept the resurrection of Jesus while, simultaneously, denying the general resurrection of the dead. There is a necessary analogy between the event of Jesus’ resurrection and the eschatological hope of the future resurrection.
A similar point can be made about Paul’s comments on the Torah in Romans 3.20. The Torah can not justify because the Torah can not serve as an analogical source for understanding God’s righteousness, as the Torah is about sin not righteousness. This does not mean that the Torah can not be used as a witness to God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ, but only that one doesn’t know about God’s righteousness via an inferential analogy from one’s knowledge of Torah.
The concern, here, then is not some sort of foundationalism or progressive, prospective movement of knowledge from one body of beliefs being used to infer or justify other body of beliefs about God, Jesus, etc. Rather, the problem is to draw an analogical inference from one body of knowledge to theological knowledge without revelation. The outright holiness of God entails that God is discontinuous with creation in such a way that one can not simply look at creation and reliably know God in His fullness. It isn’t per se impossible to come to some specific, true beliefs about God’s power and what not, but reasoning from creation to God is an utterly unreliable way to try to know God. It is like try to shoot a 200 targets while blindfolded with only 200 bullets. You may hit a target once here or there, there is no way you can direct yourself to hit all 200 targets. The fullness of God and His purposes is only knowable in Christ and through the Spirit and not through anyone or anything else.
While God as creator certainly implies that there is some sort of continuity between creation and the mind and intentions of the Creator, God’s holiness makes discovering the analogy between creation and Creator an unverifiable enterprise that would draw people off course again and again and again. Whatever specific true beliefs they might come upon, those who indiscriminately try to know God via analogy are fundamentally lead astray by all the rest that they confidently believe to be from God but is not true.
To that end, foundationalism is a problem to the extent that it expects the beliefs about God to be analogically similar to the prior, given foundations for knowledge. For instance, epistemic foundationalism combined with a fervent socio-political nationalism among Christians may lead to the conclusion that God’s purposes in the present age can only be the case in so far as God’s activity today resemble the way the nations prospered in the past. In this case, nationalism has colonized the foundations of theological knowledge, thereby suggest an analogy between national history and power and what God’s activity will look like. However, the fundamental problem is not foundationalism per se, but the way that foundationalism then provides legitimation for this socio-political analogy once the foundations of ‘truth’ has been colonized by a zealous, nationalist spirit. So, for instance, it is assumed by some white evangelical Christians that God’s work on behalf of the United States will look fundamentally like the past prosperity of white people. Even as this is not explicit to the degree of an ideological white supremacy, the fundamental assumption that God’s blessing of the United States would like like the past prospering of the white majority controls the way they understand and think about God in this present age and time.
Foundationalism, in other words, may provide legitimation of religious syncretism with socio-political values. The problem of syncretism isn’t of messing with the “purity” of religion’s foudations and backgrounds, however, but the way in which the way one knows and understands God’s has been colonized in such a way as to effectively subverts the real recognition of God’s holiness and relies in implicit analogies from the past and present socio-political order to God’s ongoing, redemptive purposes to bring about the blessing of Abraham. Foundationalism is ripe for legitimating analogical ‘heresy,’ but I would not say foundationalism itself is idolatry. To suggest a meta-anaology (an analogy about analogy): foundationalism is to analogical ‘heresy’ what Aaron is to the golden calf: complicit in the problem but is not necessarily to be reject with repentance.
- Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, EPUB Edition, ch. 2, “The Truth Gambit.”
- To be clear here, analogy is not use to describe a comparison between two ontologically distinct entities, because as a Trinitarian I would not want to draw a sharp distinction between Jesus and God. Rather, I use analogy here to refer to the inference that may be drawn from one body of beliefs to another body of beliefs. For instance, one’s knowledge of Jesus is the basis for one’s knowledge of God.