Presuppositions Matter, So Let’s Work Together
Religion & Liberty Online

Presuppositions Matter, So Let’s Work Together

presuppositions-e1361408206416-350x235It is truly amazing to encounter Protestants who believe that their views on theology and justice are objective and neutral — as if the Fall did not happen. In a recent discussion about the sacraments, a leader of an international ministry said to me, “If hermeneutics involves being taught to believe a certain theology, then it is not true hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is absolutely neutral.”

After reading his comment I wondered, what possible world is he talking about where neutrality actually happens? One of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s transgression against God in the Garden of Eden was a human race whose thinking is now impaired. In the book Wisdom and Wonder, Abraham Kuyper makes the point that while we have not ceased to be rational creatures, because of sin we have “lost the gift of grasping the true context, the proper coherence, [and] the systematic integration of all things.” Because of this aspect of the human condition it seems best, as much as possible, to put one’s presuppositions on the table since there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. Disclosure builds trust and solidarity.

One of the stumbling blocks in Protestant evangelicalism is that leaders teach their constituents that their respective positions are “the Biblical” positions when, if fact, they are formed and concluded by particular approaches and perspectives. The implication is that each tribe says that they are “truly” Biblical and those who disagree with them are not Biblical. The fact is every tradition believes that their distinctives are “biblical.” Ignoring our presuppositions often leads to useless quarreling and much wasted time (2 Tim 2; Titus 3). This does not mean that all things are up for debate and difference, but it does challenge us to pay closer attention to those things that the Scriptures are more clear about.

It is truly admirable when institutions put their presuppositions on the table because it provides the best opportunity to find points of agreement that foster solidarity so Christians across various communions can work together to fight against common threats and advocate for shared values in the public square. For example, Westminster Theological Seminary is one of the best at fully disclosing their presuppositions by listing their distinctives prominently on their website:

1. Study of Scriptures in the original languages
2. Exegetical theology & redemptive historical/conventional hermeneutics
3. Systematic theology grounded in Biblical theology
4. Presuppositional Apologetics
5. Reformed Confessionalism
6. Christ-centered preaching
7. Biblical Counseling
8. Spiritual formation for ministry in the Church
9. Contextual missiology & urban ministry
10. Presbyterian polity

This is an example of epistemic humility by a school that fully discloses that their understanding of the Christian faith is, start to finish, coming from a particular perspective. Concordia Theological Seminary (St. Louis), explicitly states that it values “Faithfulness to the Scriptures and Confessions — demonstrating the identity of the Seminary as both Lutheran and evangelical, concerned for both the pure and bold proclamation of Christ.” So, throwing random Bible verses in opposition to positions held at either of these schools is an exercise in futility. I could list many more schools demonstrating this level of humility but the point is that they lead with their assumptions and presuppositions. We need more disclosures like this in the Protestant evangelical world. Disclosure allows for more honest and principled engagement about disputable matters and creates the conditions for the best kinds of partnering.

The Manhattan Declaration is a great example of what happens when traditions lead with their respective presuppositions and choose to work together for larger causes. The Manhattan Declaration is a movement of Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians for life, marriage, and religious liberty. The Acton Institute is another place where Christians are invited to come together committed to their traditions and perspectives in order to address other important issues in the world.

What is alarming is that many leaders in parts of the Protestant evangelical world are unintentionally misleading their constituents by telling them that their perspective is simply “biblical” and neutral. This is naive, and much time is currently being wasted debating issues that will not be settled any time soon because they have not been for hundreds of years. I am not saying these cross-communion discussions are never important, only that many of the differences are about matters that may not be possibly fully clarified in the Scriptures. The question then is, “How do we work together?”

Christians in the West, across multiple traditions, have more in common with each other in an age of secular humanism and religious pluralism than we realize, and it seems that we often trade off working together for the sake of maintaining triumphant tribalism. Let’s put our presuppositions on the table and move forward because the myth of neutrality is distracting us from the larger threats to the kingdom of God.

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Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.