Reflective Judgment: Seminarians' Epistemology in a World of Relativism

By Dale, Janet L. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Reflective Judgment: Seminarians' Epistemology in a World of Relativism


Dale, Janet L., Journal of Psychology and Theology


In a culture marked by pluralism and relativism are evangelical Christian leaders with their faith-based conclusions intellectually strong? How do their assumptions about revealed knowledge affect their ability to solve important ill-structured (ambiguous and controversial) issues of life and ministry? The reflective judgment model and its semi-structured interview (RJI), based on 20 years of research, were used to assess the problem-solving ability of students preparing for ministry. The 38 male students were enrolled in an accredited seminary with an epistemology of revealed knowledge. Differences between entering and graduating students' RJI mean scores were not statistically significant, nor were their mean scores significant between religious and secular dilemmas. Further, students' scores did not decrease significantly as their references to faith increased. Recommendations for higher education are offered to help seminarians develop reflective judgment so they can adequately respond to ill-structured problems.

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In the postmodern Western world, the discipline of epistemology, with its focus on the nature of knowledge and how beliefs are justified, is changing. Evangelical epistemology considers God's revelation as the foundational source of truth, including special revelation of the scriptures and general revelation in His world. This revelation is certain, valid and authoritative in religious matters, defining beliefs and informing conduct (Erickson, 1983; Grudem, 1994). Kirk and Vanhoozer (1999) write of "an epistemological predicament" (p. 3) that relates to theology and the preparation of leaders for ministry. In this predicament, the long-standing foundationalism, which fits well with revealed knowledge, is challenged. In foundationalism, truth is analogous to a building with some beliefs being foundational and not needing justification. In contrast, W.V.O. Quine (1961) presents the analogy of knowledge as a web with each belief supported by its ties to its neighboring beliefs and to the whole. There are no beliefs that cannot be revised, and there are many kinds of connections among beliefs in the web. Quine's view of truth relates to our postmodern world with its strong affinity for skepticism and relativism. Rorty (1979) criticizes foundationalism and argues that knowledge should be thought of pragmatically, as that which is good for us to believe. With this movement away from foundationalism, how do evangelical students preparing for ministry relate to this world of relativism and pluralism?

The evangelical bent toward anti-intellectualism of the last century or more (Hatch, 1985; Guinness, 1994; Noll, 1994) likely has influenced students' epistemology and their thinking abilities. Students need to develop their capacity to think on high levels in this postmodern world, become mature in their thinking, and value the life of the mind as the scriptures encourage (Proverbs 4:7 and 16:16; I Corinthians 13: 9-12; Matthew 22:37). Noll (1994) states,

the links between deep Christian life, long-lasting Christian influence,
and dedicated Christian thought characterize virtually all of the high
moments in the history of the church. On the other side of the picture,
the history of the church contains a number of sobering examples of what
happens when a spirituality develops with no place for self-conscious
thought. The path to danger is not always the same, but the results of
neglecting the mind are uniform: Christian faith degenerates, lapses
into gross error, or simply passes out of existence. (pp. 43-44)

Sire (2000) speaks of "fulfilling our call to glorify God by thinking well" (p. 9). Students must integrate their faith and theology into their consideration of secular issues, of life dilemmas. Referring to God's special revelation and general revelation, Noll (1994) explains, "In a mirror reaction to the zealous secularists of the twentieth century, evangelicals have gone back to thinking that we must shut up one of God's books if we want to read the other one" (p. …

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