Foundationalism and Inerrancy

Foundationalism and Inerrancy December 29, 2005

Somewhere in his blog discussion of Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy , Doug Wilson indicated that McLaren considers inerrancy a sell-out to modernist foundationalism. To support this, Doug pointed me to this quotation from John Franke’s foreword to McLaren’s book: “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the foundationalist impulse produced a theological division between the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ among Anglo-Americans – liberals constructed theology upon the foundation of an unassailable religious experience while conservatives looked to an error-free Bible as the incontrovertible foundation of their theology. But in spite of all their differences, we can see that while liberal and conservative Christians appeared to be going their separate ways throughout the twentieth century, both were responding in different ways to the same modern, foundationalist agenda.”

Since I have heard Franke say that he believes in inerrancy, I have my doubts that he’s saying that inerrancy is simply a form of foundationalism. Earlier in his foreword, Franke speaks about the Enlightenment quest for certainty, which “involved reconstructing knowledge by rejecting ‘premodern’ notions of authority and replacing them with uncontestable beliefs accessible to all individuals. The assumptions of foundationalism, with its goal of establishing certain and universal knowledge, came to dominate intellectual pursuit in the modern era.”

If we understand “foundation” in the sense Franke uses it here, it seems possible to offer a different interpretation of statement I quoted earlier, one in which inerrancy and anti-foundationalism would be perfectly compatible. Based on what I’ve read of Franke, and on occasional conversations I’ve had with him, here’s what I think Franke means (or at least, here is the best construction I can put on what he means):

Foundationalism posits a collection of undeniable axioms that are self-evident to every normally-functioning human being. Creeds or theological beliefs cannot by this definition function as foundations, since they are contested and contestable. The Bible is not a foundation in this sense either, because it requires interpretation and because it cannot be rightly understood apart from the illumination of the Spirit. The Bible might still serve as foundation in the sense of Matt 7 – the words of Jesus provide secure ground on which to build a life and a church; but because these words were uttered in a particular place by a particular man in a particular language, and are not accessible to everyone everywhere, they are not “foundational” in the sense that foundationalism seeks foundations.

As for inerrancy and foundationalism, I suspect Franke would say something like this: Insofar as fundamentalism treats the Bible as transparently self-evident, needing no interpretation and leaving the individual free to pursue his own understanding without teachers, it has accommodated its view of the Bible to modern foundationalism, treating the Bible as fulfilling the criteria of a “foundation” in the sense that foundationalism seeks. (If this is what he’s saying, it’s no doubt an oversimplification of fundamentalism, which early on recognized the role of presuppositions and also generally affirmed the Reformation doctrine of the illumination of the Sprit; but there some truth in it.) It’s possible (Franke would say) to believe in an inerrant Bible (again, I’ve heard him affirm this) without turning the Bible into a foundation in the sense that the term is being used in “foundationalism.”

When I’ve heard Franke speak, he’s clarified that he’s attacking “classical foundationalism,” and that means he might be open to something like what John Frame calls “biblical foundationalism.” But that’s not so clear to me. And, in trying to suss out Franke’s views on inerrancy, I am proving comparatively little, since the question of the authority and truth of Scripture is inseparable from the question of its contents.

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