Basic Beliefs: Reformed Epistemology

Foundationalism and philosophy of religion

Reformed Epistemology was, in 1983, an uncharacteristically religious standpoint within philosophy of religion. Since the Enlightenment, most philosophies of religion have not been religious philosophies. As we saw in Chapter 10, at that time, Anglicans such as John Locke led the way in affirming that faith ought to be beyond reason but should not contradict reason. Many philosophers then and since have sought literally to underwrite the rationality of faith by first proving that God exists, and then proceeding, on this basis, to articulate God’s revelation in Scripture and in history. A standard procedure in the eighteenth-century Scholasticisms of Catholicism and Protestantism has been to think of revealed truths as resting upon and gaining their rational credibility from a supporting structure of proofs of the existence of God. This procedure somehow survived into the late twentieth century.

Going back a long way historically, the procedure and the assumptions behind it probably derive from Rene Descartes’ efforts to give rational foundations to all human knowledge. This idea that all human knowledge has rational and indeed certain foundations is called ‘foundationalism’. It originates with the Continental Rationalists, like Descartes, but is also present in empiricists, like John Locke. A foundationalist maintains that knowledge is knowledge if it rests on secure and certain foundations. Its counterpart in religion is evidentialism, the idea that religious beliefs require evidence and argument in order to be rationally or well founded.

Foundationalism lies behind the efforts of Locke and his contemporaries in England, and of their Continental counterparts, to justify faith in God’s revelation on the grounds of prior evidence and argumentation that God exists. The assumption that evidentialism is true was normative in the teaching of philosophy of religion in the twentieth century right down to the end of the 1970s. Then, at the end of the 1970s, foundationalism was subjected to highly serious philosophical criticisms, for instance, by Richard Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). At the same time, the ‘Enlightenment’ ceased to function as an incontestable token of cultural advance.

With foundationalism shaken, some Anglicans and Calvinists took the opportunity to mount a counter-attack against evidentialism. The effort to reclaim philosophy of religion for religious belief was the start of Reformed Epistemology.

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