bits from bob....

Reflections of a Rationalist Reductionist Restorationist

by Bob Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

If we commit to truth and truthfulness, we must call a spade a spade and see ourselves as we are. I am a Restorationist. I believe that we can please God by duplicating the shape of faith described in the New Testament, specifically the faith shapes reflected in the lives of the churches and Christians we come to know in the New Testament. I am committed to the authority of God's Word as a guide in all things spiritual, a guide which provides examples and instruction in faith.
I grew up a rationalist. I did not know this word when I was growing up, but that is how I would now describe my early religious thinking. Let me explain. Enlightenment rationality exalted human reason as the answer to the human dilemma, the method for knowing everything, including God's truth. The result was that God's truth became an object to be analyzed by supreme human rationality, and that the Bible meant what human reason said it meant. (The Catholic Church arrived at the same conclusion--the Bible says what the Church says it means. Francis Shaeffer expands this in his book, How Shall We Then Live?). Today I am still a rationalist, but a humble rationalist with an altered understanding. I appreciate the power of human rationality, but recognize also that it has limitations. God is beyond human understanding. When the human being and human rationality become primary actor or subject, God and Scripture become objects to be analyzed and understood. How different from the view that God is the subject and that we are objects as he works in his created world and in our lives. This latter understanding places God and his word above us, rather than vice versa. Any other approach than understanding God as sovereign over all diminishes our understanding and experience of the power of Scripture and God's continuing, active work in this world and in our lives.
I grew up well-versed in formulary reductionism. Again, allow me to explain. Philosophical reductionism treats complex systems as only the sum of the parts or individual components. Looking back on my early religious training, I see a definite tendency toward such understandings, for example in understanding salvation (5 steps) and worship (5 acts). I see now that Christianity cannot be fully understood and explained in this way, and that concepts such as discipleship and commitment (to mention only two) are often excluded by the use of such simplistic formulas.

Things to think about....

Autonomous theology vs. synergistic theology
We will not get very far in our efforts to understand God and Scripture as long as we continue to exalt autonomous theology. Early Restorationists thought we could read the Bible as though we had never read it before. Many thought human reason was sufficiently powerful to guarantee equal understandings among honest people. Such approaches divorce our thinking from the traditions and understandings of the past, as though past thinkers made no contribution to understanding or that their thinking has no value today.

The limitations of Enlightenment rationality
Seeing Enlightenment rationality as the only way to understand God's truth diminishes the power of Scripture and God's active work in this world. Again, we are not subject studying object (God and His Word). God and Scripture (subject) are working in our lives (object). We do not stand over Scripture, but Scripture over us. We cannot escape the interpretive culture and community in which we have learned to read Scripture, nor should we try to, but we should acknowledge its existence and influence in our lives, and seek out of that context to hear God. I can never be totally objective, autonomous student and interpreter--I wonder why I sometimes try, and also why others try.

The relationship between rationality and reductionism--reductionism as a result of rationality
Reductionist thinking (sum of the parts) thinking was historically fed by Enlightenment rationality as the way to understand God's truth.

The problem with reductionism
Reductionism, coupled with Enlightenment rationality as the way to understand God's truth, misidentifies the nature of Christianity and diminishes the power of Scripture. Philosophical reductionism treats complex systems as only the sum of the parts or individual components. Reductionism also focuses on causality, usually concluding that causality moves in only one direction. Recognizing reductionism as a reality in our thinking raises the question of whether we can get where we wish to go with the approach we are using.
(I will leave it to someone else to address whether we are also religious reductionists, not in the sense of explaining religion by non-religious causes, but in the sense of expecting religion to explain various proposed or perceived phenomena [witness our wrangling over all kinds of things the Bible does not clearly delineate].)

The relationship between understanding and faith
My religious heritage tends toward "understanding seeking faith." We must recognize that church history is filled also with the possibility of faith seeking understanding. In fact, the latter may be a more accurate description of the early Restorationists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

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Last updated March 23, 2012