A Note on the Current Protestant Revival of Classicism, Scholasticism, and Natural Theology

Dr. Sandlin,

Do you know what’s driving the resurgence of Classical Apologetics, Neo-platonism, and the subsequent reaction against worldview within Reformed circles?

I’m seeing more and more of this on FB posts, footnotes, books, etc. Otherwise trustworthy and respectable pastors/theologians are pushing this. What’s worse, it seems they’re promoting it as if the early presup[positional] guys were completely unaware of the Christianizing of Greek categories (as opposed to the Hellenization of Christianity, i.e. Robert Wilken).

As a Kuyperian (generally speaking), it’s not that I mind some pushback from these guys–there seems to be some good work being done (i.e Steven Wedgeworth, The Davenant Institute, etc.) but it seems that they’re either (1) lacking self-awareness and hide the fact of their own presuppositions, or (2) prevaricating and purposely misinterpreting the worldview programme. Your thoughts?

Dear ____

These are relevant issues, and I can only speculate about what’s driving the revival of classicism, scholasticism, and natural theology. Like you, I appreciate the work of Davenant and others in stressing a reasonable faith and excavating the “unused past.” I suspect at least two dubious factors, however, are at work in this program: one historical, and the other epistemological.

First, the chaos of hypermodernity drives theological and dispositional conservatives into the apparent (but only apparent) safe spaces of the past and to attempts to repristinate it.  The historic reality of Christian culture summons Christians amid hypermodernity. The scholastic era was a time when the unity of faith and reason was widely respected, and Christians could conduct scholarship in a generally hospitable climate. The problem is that this faith-reason paradigm (“double-decker” epistemology) compromised the Faith. It did not recognize the inescapably religious character of all thinking, in the lower deck of reason no less than the upper deck of faith.  Reason is always captive to the heart, and the heart is inescapably religious. This is what the presuppostionalists from Kuyper onward were wanting to say and it was, after all, just the epistemological implication of good, old-fashioned Reformation theology. Positing reason as a neutral, presupposition-less quality erased or diminished the Bible’s depiction of the depravity of the “natural” mind. Roman Catholic historian Christopher Dawson observed that when Enlightenment needed a paradigm for the super-exaltation of reason, it had one ready at hand: the scholastic nature-grace (faith) distinction. It simply lopped off the upper deck of faith-grace. For this reason, I agree with Brian Mattson’s hint that if the current advocates of natural theology were to succeed, they would return us to a way of thinking that helped give us the very secularism that afflicts us. 

Second, I think these folks are under the impression that the epistemology of worldview thinkers and presuppositionalists too closely resembles philosophical idealism and Kantian epistemology (this is not a new charge, by the way). In our postmodern times that privilege constructivist epistemologies and are attempting to reinvent reality via moves like transgenderism, those suspicions might seem well founded. By “constructivist epistemologies,” I mean views of knowledge that see nature as a mass of chaotic stuff that the mind must order and reorder in order to supply meaning. In today’s climate, it means also that man creates his own reality: nature (if there even is such a thing) is the clay, and we are the creators. To be sure, we worldview thinkers deny the possibility of unaided reason and the neutrality of the knower. Yet we’re emphatically opposed to constructivist epistemologies. We hold to a meaning-laden creation with the greatest force. Creation is foundational, and the gospel is a tributary — a vital one, to be sure — in the massive Christian worldview river. Anybody who has read Herman Dooyeweerd knows that his theory of law spheres (“creational norms”) rejects any epistemology that denies the world brims over with divinely inscribed meaning. He and we only want to point out that man never encounters creation in a neutral way: the heart (the spiritual organ) is never inert. It worships either the Creator or the creation. No one ever accused Herman Bavinck of a diminished view of creation. John M. Frame, the leading presuppositionalist of our time, just write a book on creation. It is possible (no, essential) to embrace the highest view of a meaning-laded creation and simultaneously the clearest understanding of reason as non-neutral, and captive to the heart.

The early presuppositionalists were certainly as aware as liberals like Harnack of the Hellenization of subapostolic Christianity. Indeed, Dooyeweerd made this a cornerstone of his epistemology and social theory, and Van Til made it a cornerstone of his apologetics. The liberal answer was to read this Hellenization back in the NT. The presuppositionalist answer was to adopt the Hebraic-biblical paradigm as a corrective to the Hellenization.

I hope this helps. I’m eager to see you and your son at the Runner Academy this July. We’ll be highlighting all these distinctions and more, and laying out an extensive Reformational worldview.

2 thoughts on “A Note on the Current Protestant Revival of Classicism, Scholasticism, and Natural Theology

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