Comfortably non-Cartesian

A few years ago at an academic conference in San Antonio I sat in on a debate between a scholar who had just offered a paper on the reformer John Calvin and a questioner in the audience. The presenter had argued that Calvin’s ideas were “pre-critical.” The questioner respectfully disagreed; and a productive exchange went on for ten very lively minutes.

A paper, I should add, is a tightly researched academic report the author reads, verbatim, for about thirty minutes to an audience of scholars. Conferences typically last three days with thousands of scholars on hand and hundreds of papers delivered. It’s an exercise that allows professors to exchange ideas and catch up on current research. Well-informed listeners are usually present and time—about fifteen minutes—is provided for questions and answers.

The point of this particular debate had to do with Calvin’s habit of addressing the Bible as if it was reliably God’s word—and therefore inspired and true. The presenter argued that it was a naïve approach on a certain issue and that accounted for a flaw in Calvin’s view.

The listener disagreed. He argued that the question of a supernatural God in theological studies is separate from the question of Calvin’s abilities as a clear and careful thinker. Calvin, in fact, displayed keen analytical skills that have stood the test of time. His Bible commentaries, in fact, can be as useful today as they were centuries ago. So the paper actually challenged Calvin’s belief that God exists and communicates reliably. And that’s a matter still in debate today.

I offer this story as context for my own believing, growing, and writing. I realize it’s not an issue most readers really care about! But my life is at least an example—unique as it may be—of the sort of processing we all experience in a lifetime. And living an informed life is more satisfying than a blind wander in the night. There are some potholes to be avoided!

The biggest question of life is whether God is actually “there” and, if he is, whether he has something to say. Most of us who have been raised in churched homes will tip our hats to this belief but it calls for more than a token agreement. My own life changed dramatically when I asked the question and got a clear answer as I read Matthew’s gospel—it changed everything!

For professing Christians the next question is how we treat the Cartesian starting point. The term Cartesian refers to the work of René Descartes whose famous aphorism, “I think, therefore I am,” set a new basis for how humans know things. In the history of Christian thought the standard starting point was, “In the beginning God …” God’s revelation, in other words, was meant to oversee human reason. But Descartes reversed that order.

It might seem like a very small shift but in practice it had dramatic results. Today most historians treat this Cartesian shift as the beginning of the “modern” movement, when Western thinkers began to challenge biblical revelation with skeptical reasoning. That skepticism touched both Christian and non-Christian studies—with Baruch de Spinoza taking Descartes’ rational methodology to argue for a pantheistic version of God. For others Deism and Atheism soon followed.

In Christian circles the Cartesian shift caused rationalistic Christians to become skeptical of the supernatural claims in the Bible. Take, for instance, the Cartesian skepticism about the prophetic mention of Josiah in 1 Kings 13:2—three hundred years before Josiah was born. For Cartesians it meant the passage must have been composed after Josiah actually lived.

This would also be the case with the prophetic mention of Cyrus the Great in Isaiah 45:1-3 because Cyrus was born almost 150 years after Isaiah’s time. For an anti-supernatural skeptic Isaiah’s passage had to be composed sometime after Cyrus reigned. And so on—with thousands of similar critiques readily available.

A certainty among Modernist theologians today is that the Pentateuch is a late-date work of pro-Jewish propaganda—and not something “Moses” ever composed. And earning a PhD today under the supervision of Modern scholars, while holding to the Mosaic authorship of Genesis, is all but impossible. Even though Jesus attributed those writings to Moses.

One scholar I admire, Helmut Thielicke (1908-86), blew the whistle on this Cartesian impulse in academic Christianity. The first volume of his The Evangelical Faith is a delight to read. And while his concerns are both broader and narrower than my own, he’s very helpful.

In my lifetime I’ve watched dramatic transformations as Christian centers of higher learning begin to shift away from a bedrock confidence in God’s supernatural presence, both in the Bible and in God’s engagement in current life—his providence. Schools move, instead, to a Cartesian dismissal of all such certainties as the Cartesian impulse swells through the self-confident rationalism of too many young academics who once were simple Biblicists.

So my own ambition is to be overtly non-Cartesian. And any modern scholars who might read what I offer will soon dismiss my face-value interpretations of the Bible as so much “pre-critical” piety.

And in that measure I’m in the same boat with John Calvin. And with Jesus who believed Moses wrote Genesis.

It’s not bad company!

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About R N Frost

R N (Ron) Frost is a student of history, especially the history of Christian spirituality. Ron served for more than 20 years at a Portland, OR, college and seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was a professor of historical theology and ethics. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. This involves a number of trips to worldwide destinations each year, each by invitation. All his services are gratis, so ministry partners are needed and welcomed. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.