By Ken Niemann
My attempt here is to offer a brief survey of fideism in the Christian church and elucidate it’s deviation from orthodoxy and just plain common sense. It will be shown that, while often well intentioned fideism requires gross distortion of scriptural content and actually serves to undermine the nature of man’s relationship to God. Moreover, in many regards, it is an unintelligible position.
The definition of fideism must remain broad in this survey as it has many representatives and forms which span the whole of Christendom. Nonetheless, we will make several key distinctions while outlining it’s general premises. As a general view, Audi defines fideism in the following manner:
“….the claim that one’s fundamental religious convictions are not subject to independent rational assessment. A reason often given for this is that devotion to God should be one’s ultimate concern and to subject faith to judgment of reason is to place reason above God and make of it an idol”1
Audi warns of confusing fideism with experientialism which differs in that experientialism holds that “religious beliefs may be directly grounded in religious experience without the mediation of other beliefs and may be rationally warranted on that account, just as perceptual beliefs are directly grounded in perceptual experience “.2
The distinction is that while fideism neither claims nor offers tests for Christian truth, experientialism holds that personal experience of God has the final word on what is true regarding God, yet it is rational. Though our focus will remain on fideism, we should note that experientialism will succumb to a number of the same criticisms which are leveled against fideism.
Fideism “argues” that matters of faith cannot and should not be addressed by reason or, as Pascal and Kierkegaard put forth, it holds to the parity argument which is the “skeptical premise that many commonsense beliefs share with faith the feature that they are beyond rational justification”. 3
Either way, attempts at reasoning in religious matters are counterproductive to knowledge about God. As Pascal and Kierkegaard also argue, God is hidden from view thus making reason useless in attaining knowledge of God. One must simply accept a faith as true without reasonable grounds. In the spirit of fideism, Tertullian asks:
” What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the Academy and the Church…? Away with all projects for a “Stoic”, a “Platonic”, or a “Realistic” Christianity- Credo quia absurdum”. 4
Fideists are generally held to be coherentists, that is, they hold a belief to be true only if it coheres with a system of other beliefs which mutually support each other. Correspondence, the theory that a belief is true if it corresponds to the actual state of affairs (in reality), is to be rejected as truth is not to be found in the noumenal realm. The impetus for this view is found largely in the writings of Kant who asserted that things in themselves cannot be known. He attempted to reconcile the rationalist view of an a priori knowledge with the empiricist’s insistence that all knowledge is a posteriori, coming through the senses. According to Kant, the content of what is to be known comes through the senses in an a posteriori sense,but is interpreted by the matrix of the mind which accounts for time, causality, sufficient reason etc. in an a priori fashion. Most importantly, since our minds are the sole interpretive grid on which we make judgments, we can never know if they are correct or correspond to reality ( the noumenal world), we can only know how they appear to us ( as the phenomenal world). The end result is complete agnosticism and Kant’s influence on religious thought has been ubiquitous and devastating.
For Schleiermacher who was critical of Kant’s notions of piety (thinking, living, and doing), religion is not cognitive; it is to be just felt. Faith is a system of feelings based on complete dependence on God and is impervious to propositions. Revelation is not something that can be taught by one and learned by others; it does not correspond to a particular reality or the noumenal world. The very attributes of God are not objective and knowable but are to be described by the feelings of men. Ritschl, who originally championed objectivism, soon followed suit with his own subjectivistic view that we can only know God through His value to us. Since only value judgments are meaningful, theology as whole must be discarded.
Fideism goes further goes to reject classical foundationalism or any belief in self evident principles. The laws of logic are not applicable to knowledge of God or His creation (i.e. reality or the noumenal world). The notions of noncontradiction, identity, and causality have no reign on what can be said about God or creation. The antimonies raised by Kant would be an example of such:
Thesis: Not every cause has a cause, otherwise the series would never begin, which it has. So, there must be a first cause.
Antithesis: But the series cannot have a beginning, since everything has a cause. So, there cannot be a first cause.5
Alternatively, it may be offered that we have in light an example of the violation of the law of noncontradiction since light is both a particle and a wave. This, a fideist might argue, definitively shows that reality tolerates contradictions.
Natural Theology is to be rejected as well. Some fideists, genuflecting to the criticisms Kant leveled against natural theology, hold that the arguments simply do not prove the existence of God. Others view natural theology as entirely irrelevant. The latter works of Barth, for example, held that there is a general or natural revelation but no significant knowledge of God may be derived from it. Geisler describes Barth’s view as the following:
“Barth’s attitude to natural theology is summarized in the one word title of his book to Emil Brunner “Nein”(No). Not only is natural theology impossible but there is not even in man an active capacity to receive God’s revelation… And to assert, as Brunner does a “general grace” is not to take seriously the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura and to ally oneself with the Roman Catholics. ” 6
Van Til would agree with Barth that due to the effects of sin on the mind of man, that is, complete depravity, the natural man is completely incapable of receiving what is demonstrated by natural theology.(Criticisms of Van Til’s positions often prove challenging because, as will be later demonstrated, when Van Til comes to a fork in the road, he takes it.) Further, Van Til holds that humans can have knowledge only if it is revealed in scripture. If 1 + 1= 2 is not explicitly revealed in scripture; it is meaningless to even consider it. Nash illustrates this well in saying:
“Van Til rejects the presumption that a person might know something about the mind of God that was not the product of special revelation. Unlike Van Til, few Christians have any difficulty affirming the following three propositions: (a) 1 plus 1 equals 2 (b) God knows that 1 plus 1 equals 2 (c) when a human beings knows that 1 plus 1 equals 2, his or her knowledge is identical with God’s knowledge of the same proposition”7
Dooyeweerd’s theory of the boundary between God and creation is similar. His view contends that since God is above creation, He is not under the same laws found in creation. What applies beneath the boundary (creation), does not apply above the boundary (God); this holds true even for the laws of logic not just physical laws.
Pascal held that reason is the mathematical and scientific mind; the first principles of which cannot be demonstrated. Just as math and science are ultimately ungrounded so too are the things of God hidden from us due to the effects of original sin. Pascal argues that “reason” is really dependent on the heart for its very basis and function” 8 and the first principles are intuitions of the heart. Even the law of noncontradiction is an inadequate test for truth as some certainties are in contradiction with one another. Thus, man should approach reason with skepticism and humility. Further, reason cannot decide the issue of God’s existence. Reason neither significantly adds to nor detracts from the notion of God’s existence. Based on reason alone the odds of God’s existence are about even. This being the case, we are faced with a gamble ( and we must choose one because to not make a choice is not choosing God): If we choose God and He actually does exist then we have everything to gain and if He does not exist we lose nothing. However, if we do not choose God and He exists then we have lost everything. Pascal then urges us to choose God.
It is here that our criticism of fideism begins. Pascal’s argument is an appeal to reason and a logical construct which affirms the very things he earlier denies. Note first that despite his denial of the law of noncontradiction, his arguments rest on one making the necessary distinction between choosing God and not choosing God. If the law of noncontradiction were truly invalid, it would make Pascal’s wager completely unintelligible- we could not discern the difference between the choices. We could not recognize the difference between “to choose” and “to not choose”. Pascal then proceeds to make profound If/Then statements which are grounded in one idea necessarily following from the other. It is a knowledge claim that a particular thing follows from another in the real world from a given view- a rational inference. Pascal was a member of the devout Catholic Jansenist sect. It might be asked of Pascal or those championing his view if this type of argumentation is really what their Lord intended. Craig Hawkins points out that Jesus in Matthew 12:24-30 related to unbelievers, in this case the Pharisees, in just the way that Pascal and others recommend as not possible or productive:
Argument from analogy (vv. 25-26)
The law of logical or rational inference (v.25)
Reductio ad absurdum (vv. 25-26)
Argument from analogy (v. 27)
The law of logical or rational inference (vv. 28, 29)
Argument from analogy (v. 29)
The law of contradiction (v. 30)
The law of excluded middle (v. 30) 9
One would think that the methodology employed by Jesus might be a suitable example of both how the Christian is to relate to unbelievers and think in religious terms. What fideists fail to understand is that they constantly and consistently use reason at the meta level. Pascal offers that it is most reasonable to choose God when the evidence is lacking. He and Kierkegaard hold to fideism because God is not knowable. They are arguing that B rationally follows from A. Tertullian also makes a rational distinction between Jerusalem and Athens in the process of chastising others for using philosophical methods. (It should be noted that the Greeks no more invented logic and rational thought than cardiologists invented the heart. They essentially, though not infallibly, raised the bar in the way issues are to be deliberated.) Schleiermacher in self refuting, inconsistency tells Kantians something like the following: “This is the way things really are, your reflections on the nature of morality and religion are not actually the case; they do not correspond to the way things really are”. How does Schleiermacher know this if all information about God is really a feeling? Perhaps this is just the way Kantians feel about God; why is Schleiermacher telling others that their feelings about God are somehow wrong? Similar criticisms fall on Ritschl. How does Ritschl justify his criticisms of those who practice theology? What if some people happen to value the practice theology as God given and having implications for moral terpretude? It should also be asked of Ritschl whether his view is really a theological position or not. Some would argue that he does offer a theological position- it is just a bad one, a poorly thought out case for fideism.
As Penelhum correctly points out and in fairness to fideists:
“there is an obvious inconsistency in dismissing faith as irrational merely because of the fact ( if it is one)that it involves a leap beyond evidence in the way that perceptual or inductive beliefs are thought to do”.10
In other words, if one cannot prove the first principles of logic, then why should faith have any more stringent of a criteria to follow? Thus, the evidentialist criteria of rationality is too narrow. Penelhum counters by stating that fideists react the wrong way to the implications of this argument and hints at the idea that if rationality can be so easily discarded then why are arguments against the need for evidence so compelling? The fideist is shown again to be employing the very principles he denies; he is giving us a reason to believe in fideism. The unintelligibility of the fideist, however, is even more profound than mere inconsistency. The response to this challenge takes us back once again to the notion of a priori knowledge which is the kind of knowledge that is not dependent on sense experience. Historically, it has presented as Plato’s “Innate Ideas” or Leibniz’s “Truth’s of Reason” which is logic and arithmetic truth etc. Kant added to philosophical thought the notion of the synthetic a priori which entails “knowledge that may begin with experience but did not arise from experience, yet was nevertheless known directly”. 11 Necessity and universality (that is, there are no conceivable exceptions) are the required criteria for this type of knowledge. This concept is best communicated via example: “5 + 7 = 12”, “things occur in time”, and “it is wrong to torture babies for the fun of it”. These propositions are statements that begin in the sensory but a quality of the mind is that it is able to grasp these ideas and make necessary connections between ideas that are not just tautologies.
Many significant challenges to synthetic a priori knowledge are available to philosophers. However, one thing is clear; there is no intelligibility of any view argument, or thought without first assuming the laws of logic (e.g. the law of noncontradiction). The fundamental flaw in the above fideist challenge is that fideists fail to understand that rationality must be assumed before anything can be known- even their position. It is often countered by fideists that all things begin with God. This is indeed the case, but the formulation needs to be qualified. Ontologically (in nature or essence) all things begin with God but epistemologically (knowing about)God begins with the first principles. In other words, certainly, God created all things and placed in man the capacity to reason, but before knowing this or anything else, the laws of logic must be engaged. Otherwise,we would not know “God” from “not God”. Hence, while like faith, the first principles cannot be proved but they must precede and are necessary to comprehension of any article of faith. These principles describe what faith is or is not.
Van Til counters that this makes man autonomous, a law unto himself, such that he could make the laws of reason self governed and independent of God and, therefore, twist or distort reason to his own discretion justifiably. Rejecting any commonality between the mind of man and the mind of God, Van Til asserts that non-Christians and natural theologians (i. e. evidentialists) must be challenged in their presupposition that man’s reasoning is somehow similar to and congruent with God’s. It is here that Van Til arrives at his logical cul de sac. He cannot even challenge presuppositions without assuming autonomy in man. How is man to understand and note the difference in presuppositions if his mind is completely deprived of all reason? There must be some reason, some common ground, to have any dialogue at all! The whole of Van Til’s presuppositionalist argument demonstrates that he autonomously challenges other autonomous minds to think presuppositionally. Hence, the autonomy of man, (beginning with man’s understanding) is necessary and because it is in line with what it means to be made in God’s image, it is virtuous. After the recognition of God’s existence and Lordship, we come to understand, at least in part, that God is omnicient and that His ways are above our ways. Further, two key points can be gleaned by examining what Paul says in 1Cor15:14: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith is also in vain”. First, Paul is not taking a presuppositional position. He cannot be assuming Christianity is true while at the same time saying “if Christ has not been raised”. Secondly, he is grounding the objective truth of Christianity in the actual ressurection.
Presuppostions are meaningless if they cannot be backed up with objective claims. What should prevent one from presupposing Buddhism? Many worldviews, in fact, account for religious experiences. How do we know which one is the right one? Which is the special one that stands apart from the others? We must go beyond presuppostions and experience to support any truth claim.
Moreover, rationality is a feature of the universe. There is nothing in reality that ever violates the law of noncontradiction, not even God. The often used example of light violating the law of noncontradiction makes for poor philosophy. Light is an entity that exhibits the properties of both particle and wave; it is not two different entities with conflicting natures rolled into one, it is one entity with two different properties. Light does not violate the law of noncontradiction. Similarly, the antimonies offered by Kant are resolvable with some effort. Responding the one above, God can be a first cause if He exists outside of time, that is, He was timeless before the creation of the world. Thus, God is not infinitely old and does not violate the proposition that there can be no actual infinites. If the notion of time is coherent; it’s negation, timelessness, is also coherent. Notably, the Hawking, Penrose, and Ellis papers from 1966-1970 gave evidence that both space and time had a beginning.
Returning to the views of Van Til and Dooyeweerd, we must see that rationality in our world is reflective of a rational God. If rationality does not apply to God since he is above boundary as Dooyeweerd insists, it follows that God may be both good and bad,sovereign and not sovereign, or have true and false beliefs, etc. Or, if, as Van Til argues, God knows everything that is true, and we know nothing of what God knows, then it follows that we nothing that is true. There must be something in common between our minds and the mind of God to know anything at all. Hence, the views of Van Til are self refuting; that is, they cannot satisfy their own criteria. How can he make truth claims when he knows nothing?
Nash provides an example:
” In A Christian Theory of Knowledge, Van Til warns that one must not take the biblical teaching about both divine sovereignty and human responsibility as a logical contradiction. On page 38 of the same book, he admits that the presence of a logical contradiction in the Bible would count as evidence against the Bible’s claim to be the word of God. In these passages Van Til does what he himself says is impossible; he applies the law of noncontradiction on both sides of the Boundary” 12
How does Van Til know that we can only know what is explicitly revealed in scripture when this concept itself is not revealed in scripture? Is every view held by Van Til explicit in scripture- even his views on potential contradictions? No, rather, he is clearly making rational inferences. How does Dooyeweerd know that rationality does not apply beyond the creation boundary when he cannot know anything beyond the boundary? Similar criticisms fall on Kant as he describes the knowledge boundary between the phenomenal world (the mind) and the noumenal world (reality). If he cannot know anything about reality then how does he know it cannot be known? Kant is offering something to the effect of “We know one thing but not the other”, but to know something is not another thing, one must know, at least in part, the properties of both.
Nor is Van Til’s position congruent with the doctrine revealed in the Johannine Logos which describes Jesus as both the cosmological and epistemological Logos. Gordon Clark describes in exquisite detail the original intent of John and the author of Hebrews regarding the Logos. Tracing the meaning of the term from Plato to Philo, a contemporary of the New Testament authors, Clark describes the Logos as indicating:
“a supreme intelligence controlling the universe. To be sure, this was pantheistically conceived by Heraclitus and the Stoics, but in more orthodox fashion by Philo. And, tautologically, the Old Testament gives the Biblical meaning. Therefore, if one hesitates to translate the first verse as ‘In the beginning was the Divine logic’, at least one can say ‘In the beginning was Wisdom’ “13
While similarities between the logos of Philo and Logos of the biblical writers did indeed exist, the biblicalwriters clearly meant something more than an impersonal intelligence. John unequivocally places this supreme intelligence as a person, Jesus Christ. Nash points out that:
“Philo’s Logos is not a person or a messiah or a savior but a cosmic principle postulated to solve metaphysical and epistemological problems.” 14
Both John and the writer of Hebrews are countering the prevalent philosophies of their day, Gnosticism and Alexandrian Platonism, showing the superiority of Christ as He is the inherent and supreme intelligence of the cosmos. As Christ was a person and “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9), he is not only the Word of God but the ground of human knowledge as well. Jesus is the source of our rationality, the link between human understanding and the mind of God. This is what it means to be made in the image of God ( Imago Dei).
Unequivocally, Paul, in Romans 1:20, describes a natural revelation: “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made”. And, Psalm 19 reads “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth His handiwork”. These passages are significant for natural theology in that they describe revelation as being through nature, from the phenomenal world to the noumenal world to God. This knowledge is available to all yet suppressed by unbelievers (Romans 1:18-19). Hence, the issue is not that natural man cannot understand what is true about God; he rejects it in a volitional way. It is not that the unbeliever uses logic to explain away this revelation; he has to violate logic and sound reason to do so. The task of apologetics or natural theology, therefore, is to unmask the suppression of man’s denial of the knowledge of God. It is rejection of this knowledge obtained and possessed (Romans 1:21, 28, 32) that makes man morally culpable. For if unbelievers had not known or could not know what is true and just, they would be left with an excuse. Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley summarize the assertions drawn from Romans 1:
Assertion 1: There is a general or natural revelation.
Assertion 2: There is a content to natural revelation.
Assertion 3: Natural revelation is clear not obscure.
Assertion 4: Natural revelation has been continuous since creation.
Assertion 5: Natural theology proceeds from the visible to the invisible.
Assertion 6: Natural revelation leaves humans morally responsible.
Assertion 7: Natural revelation” gets through,” it is subjectively appropriated.
Assertion 8: People respond negatively to natural revelation, refusing to acknowledge the knowledge they gain.
Assertion 9: General revelation yields a knowledge of God from nature- a natural theology.
The conclusion they offer is that “if people do in fact have a knowledge of God from nature, then natural theology is possible”. 15 Hence, when Van Til says that he starts more frankly from the Bible, he does not. Moreover, Van Til assumes that the natural man can understand his presuppositional arguments; if the unbeliever is actually so deprived of understanding what good is it to challenge his presuppositions in the first place? He could not understand anything Van Til is saying. Nor does Van Til escape this trap by appealing to a sensus divinatus (divine sense) in the unbeliever. Sproul et al. argue the point well:
“A sense or awareness of something is not necessarily knowledge of it. One may have a sense or awareness of something moving in a dark room without knowing what it is or even being certain it is anything….Van Til is caught in the horns of a dilemma. When he says that the unregenerate have no knowledge, his statement is patently false and unscriptural. When he says the unregenerate do have knowledge, he contradicts his contention that one must presuppose God, as well as his assertion that their knowledge is false.” 16
Harold O. J. Brown puts the conclusion most succinctly: “God does not require a sacrificium intellectus, a “sacrifice of the intellect”, as part of faith. Because the sacrifice of the intellect is a violent affront to the integrity of one’s soul, it is always dangerous and certainly a poor way to begin to love God with all one’s heart, soul and mind”. 17
Fideism, thus runs against the nature of God and His relationship to man.
1. Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) p 253
3. Quinn, Philip L. and Taliaferro, Charles, eds., A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion ( Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) p 380
4. Geisler, Norman L., Christian Apologetics ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976)
5. Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) p 402
6. Geisler, Norman L., Christian Apologetics ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976) p 55
7. Nash, Ronald H., The Word of God and the Mind of Man ( Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1982) p 100
8. Geisler, Norman L., Christian Apologetics ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976) p 48
9. Hawkins, Craig, Apologetics Information Ministry, apologeticsinfo.org/
10. Quinn, Philip L. and Taliaferro, Charles, eds., A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion ( Malden:
Blackwell Publishers, 1997) p 381
11. Pojman, Louis P., What Can We Know?: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge ( Belmont:
Wadsworth, 2001) p 208