Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda

By Young, Richard A. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda


Young, Richard A., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda. By Nancey Murphy. Valley Forge: Trinity, 1996, 162 pp., $20.00.

The thesis of Murphy's book is that "philosophy of the modern period is largely responsible for the bifurcation of Protestant Christian thought" into liberalism and conservatism (p. 1). Murphy contends that the theological method of both contemporary conservatism and liberalism has been shaped by Enlightenment rationality. A. McGrath, in A Passion for Truth, also contends that modern conservative evangelical thought has been shaped by Enlightenment rationality through Scottish commonsense realism, of which it needs to be purged. Murphy, however, goes a step further. In order to respond coherently to the secular challenge, Christians made use of Enlightenment foundational epistemology. However, there were only two foundational responses possible: one based on Scripture, the other on experience. Through this apologetic beginning, foundationalism crept into the theological structure of modern theology and has resulted in the present bifurcation into conservatism and liberalism.

Foundationalism is a system of knowledge stemming from Descartes, in which knowledge is built on a solid foundation of "indubitable beliefs available to each individual." All knowledge must ultimately be justified by a foundation of belief that cannot be called into question. Murphy argues that foundationalism entered conservative theology through J. Locke, T. Reid (founder of Scottish common-sense realism), and the old Princeton theology. This view follows Locke in claiming that rational proofs for God's existence and for Scripture's being divine revelation establish Scripture as an indubitable foundation of objective facts upon which theology can be built. Foundationalism entered liberal theology as a result of Hume's attack on Locke's rational basis for holding Scripture as foundational. Alternate rational methods, such as historical criticism, emerged in the 19th century to salvage truth in Scripture but were finally abandoned in favor of experience. In liberal thinking, experience serves as an adequate foundation because it is thought to be unchallengeable and universally accessible. With experiential foundationalists, such as Schleiermacher, Scripture becomes the first floor, not the foundation.

Murphy continues her analysis of the two approaches with each view's concept of language, divine action, and relationship with science. The "outside-in" epistemology of conservatives accords with a referential view of religious language (propositions about spiritual realities), divine intervention, and commensurability with science (religious language depicts scientific truth). The "inside-out" epistemology of liberals accords with an expressive view of religious language (symbolic or metaphorical expressions of religious attitudes), divine immanence, and incommensurability with science (religious language only depicts religious truths). In the second half of the book, Murphy develops linguistic holism (speech-act theory) and metaphysical holism (causation from top down and bottom up) as alternatives for the impasse created by the divergent approaches to religious language and by the atomistic/reductionistic view of reality.

Murphy contends that both conservatism and liberalism have failed to live up to their expectations. Just as there is no way rationally to establish the Scriptures as divine revelation, there is no way to establish that a religious experience is an experience of God. The foundations turn out not to be indubitable. Rather, they are "dependent upon the structure they are intended to justify" (p. …

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