Myodicy, Issue 26, June 2006

It Goes
Without Saying:
Reflections on

by Theodore Plantinga

I have a job with a wonderful mandate: I'm supposed to figure out what the Christian approach to philosophy is. Actually, there's a bit more to it: I'm supposed to help students judge between possible candidates for such a role in our intellectual life. In philosophy, as in other fields of endeavor, it is not necessary to keep reinventing the wheel. I am certainly free to come up with something entirely novel, but my employer does believe in the tried and true. So do I.

Now, an internet search would quickly reveal that there is such a thing as "Reformed epistemology," a term that would seem to have a lot to do with the quest for an authentically Christian philosophy. This interesting approach to questions of knowledge, whose main representatives are Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, chips away at a cherished assumption that has been with many of us for a couple of centuries now, namely, that we need to distinguish radically between knowledge and belief. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) declared in the preface to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason: "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith." [NOTE 1]

The upshot of Kant's philosophical efforts, in which he was spurred on by the challenging writings of David Hume (1711-76), was to shrink the domain of what common sense might be inclined to label as knowledge. He thereby opened up a considerable area of faith or belief, but it seemed there was not a whole lot one could do with such belief -- at least, not in terms of the world we share with other people, the world we are wont to characterize as "objective." And so it seems appropriate to ask whether this utter sundering of knowledge and belief to which we have grown so accustomed should be maintained. Perhaps knowledge could have something of the character of justified belief.

Nowadays, theorizing about knowledge is not confined to the ranks of the philosophers. The sociologists and psychologists get into the act as well; indeed, the former have developed a tradition of inquiry which even leads to the production of books and courses called "sociology of knowledge." Now, whether the people called sociologists of knowledge are sociologists in the strict sense (as opposed to being philosophers who wound up in the wrong department of the university) could be debated. I do not propose to go into this issue here. For our purposes it suffices to say that a great many philosophers in our time have admitted -- albeit grudgingly in some cases -- that there is a social dimension to knowledge. I believe that the Reformed epistemologists understands this as well.

So why do we believe what we do? Could it have something to do with peer pressure? Do we sometimes give in to the not-so-subtle desires of our fellow human beings to see us professing belief in thus-and-such? Teenagers would know the answer to this question: the more reflective among them recognize that peer pressure plays an enormous role in their lives. Is peer pressure an appropriate factor to consider when studying the genesis of knowledge and belief?

Generally speaking, Reformed people are like teenagers in the sense that peer pressure is a major factor in their conduct and also their thinking. Being Reformed is in part a matter of adopting a certain cognitive posture, or taking a certain attitude when it comes to responding to epistemological challenges. But the mentality I mean to raise for discussion here is not often described in philosophical literature.

The mentality in question is so characteristic of the Dutch Reformed, in particular, that I shall characterize it by using a Dutch word which I will leave untranslated in this essay after explaining its meaning: "vanzelfsprekendheid." It seems that in the world of the Dutch Reformed churches and institutions, there are a great many things that need to be accepted and/or done without question: it goes without saying that one would do thus-and-such or believe this or that. The Dutch meaning of "vanzelfsprekendheid" is roughly that the matter speaks for itself. In other words, in plain English, it goes without saying. Thus it needs no defense -- whatever "it" might be.

Of course real philosophers are supposed to be opposed to any such attitude in the minds of people. Part of the glory of philosophy is the challenge of querying people on just about anything they believe and asking them to produce those dreaded "foundations" that Reformed epistemology is trying to get us beyond. Deeply buried presuppositions must be scrutinized under the brightest light possible. This is done in introduction to philosophy classes with appeals to such figures as Socrates, Descartes and Hume as patron saints of applied skepticism. It's all great fun, and it seems to elevate its practitioners above the common herd of humankind. That's why philosophy students and professors tend to take on airs of superiority.

Such attitudes, of course, breathe the spirit of the great Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Kant, thought by many to be the greatest philosopher of all time, opens his charming essay on the notion of enlightenment with the following words:

Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's intelligence without the guidance of another. ... Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment. Through laziness and cowardice a large part of mankind, even after nature has freed them from alien guidance, gladly remain immature. It is because of laziness and cowardice that it is so easy for others to usurp the role of guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book which provides meaning for me, a pastor who has conscience for me, a doctor who will judge my diet for me and so on, then I do not need to exert myself. I do not have any need to think; if I can pay, others will take over the tedious job for me. [NOTE 2]

The notion of rational enlightenment as the basis for life started long, long before the eighteenth century. Socrates usually gets credit for popularizing this idea. And most people with a bit of education know what happened to Socrates: he was executed by the authorities. Why? Well, I suppose one could say that he proved to be a pest. And while the historical evidence suggests that the authorities were hoping that he would slip out of town (Athens) once he comprehended that people were put out with him and that he would then stay away forever, there is no question that he had deliberately made himself persona non grata in Athens. In the process, of course, he had made himself a figure of great interest to some of the young men about town, whom he was said to have corrupted.

One of his famous dictums is that the unexamined life is not worth living. And so philosophy students are challenged to examine everything about their lives and figure out why they do this or refrain from doing or believing that. Intro philosophy can therefore turn into an extended discussion of the foundations of ethics. It's intellectually invigorating, and one certainly learns a good deal from it, but one is inclined to ask: Where does it all lead to? Where will it end?

Socrates was not the only such figure in intellectual history; there were quite a number of them. Moreover, the tendency to ask for a justification of what most people take for granted also extends into theology, which is sometimes regarded as a rather dogmatic discipline.

Another Socrates figure who is worth mentioning in this essay is the young Klaas Schilder (1890-1952). G.C. Berkouwer (1903-96), who presided over the fateful Synod of 1944, said of Schilder many years later: "He took issue with all vanzelfsprekendheid." [NOTE 3]

Berkouwer's brief sentence about Schilder needs more than a brief translation into English. What Berkouwer was basically saying is that the young Schilder would raise objections to any attitude or procedure in theological or church discussion in which things were simply taken for granted. No wonder he was also deemed a pest!

A small detour into history may be helpful here; otherwise we will be inclined to dismiss Berkouwer as mistaken on this point. Many people associate Schilder with the churches that are known in Canada as Canadian Reformed and in the Netherlands as "liberated" Reformed -- and rightly so. Now, those churches are widely considered to be very conservative in theological respects -- indeed, somewhat hidebound -- and too much mired in tradition. Therefore one is inclined to take them as cardinal examples of the reliance on vanzelfsprekendheid of which this essay speaks. And those churches trace their origin as a separate group to the great battle over Schilder that culminated in his deposition in 1944, an event which in turn triggered quite an exodus from the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.

Whether the Schilder of later years fell into vanzelfsprekendheid is not a question on which I will offer a judgment here. It is worth noting that he lived for only eight years after the tumultuous events of 1944. What is more relevant to this essay is the question what it was that triggered the 1944 battle in the first place. And part of the answer is that Schilder was a pest. As the story is told by Rudolf Van Reest in his book on Schilder, [NOTE 4] there was an establishment group and tradition within the churches of that time, dominated by men who considered themselves the intellectual heirs and successors of Abraham Kuyper, including H.H. Kuyper (1864-1945), who taught church history and church law at the Free University of Amsterdam and enjoyed the distinction of being Kuyper's first-born son. It was to this group, in particular, that Schilder appeared to be a pest, and it was the influence of this group that tipped the balance toward deposing him and chasing him out of the church and out of the official denominational seminary in Kampen where he had served for some years as a professor. Through his writings and especially his polemical exchanges with foes in the church papers, Schilder was challenging the consensus and established tradition on various points of Biblical theology and ecclesiastical procedure.

My own sympathies are very much with Schilder in the battle of 1944, and I have aired them at length elsewhere; no repetition is needed here. But in this essay I cannot refrain from admitting that I, too, know what it is to feel old and tired. I have had plenty of days on which I am utterly unwilling to have my assumptions challenged. It is so comfortable to be able to take a body of established truths for granted. Even a philosopher by trade does not wish to engage in tiresome discussions about foundational matters just about every morning.

In the organizational world we find an interesting parallel to the attitude I am trying to lay on the table. It has to do with zero-based budgeting, which is a procedure that many seemingly loyal employees secretly loathe and detest. The basic principle of zero-based budgeting, as I understand it, is that when making the expenditures projection for the coming fiscal year, one may not simply expect to spend what one spent in the previous year, perhaps adding just a bit more to make up for normal price increases. Rather, every item in the budget needs to be justified afresh. One may not argue: It goes without saying that we need to spend at least so many dollars on photocopying. This rule is to be followed year after year after year.

I take this procedure to be the financial equivalent of foundationalism. And many people working within an organization are affronted by it. Why should they be forced to justify every kind of anticipated expenditure? Doesn't it cost an awful lot of time and money to go through such an exercise on an annual basis? Many consider it to be sheer stupidity. It also tends to undermine relationships between people who work together in the budgeting process.

I suppose such a mentality could even be carried outside the world of financial planning and budgeting and into the domain of bare existence. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what you would do if someone put pressure on you to justify your existence as a creature on Planet Earth and thereby revoked your "right to life"? In other words, what would you say if you had to explain why the world should go on feeding you and thereby keeping you alive? You might, in irritation, snap back that you are paying for your own food -- and it's nobody's business. And that might be a satisfactory answer on a certain level. But suppose you had become severely disabled and were unable to contribute productively to society in the way you used to do. What if you then had to justify the continued expenditure and effort involved in feeding you and keeping you alive? In other words, what if you then had to justify your existence, with nothing to be taken for granted -- no vanzelfsprekendheid?

If we could bring ourselves to think seriously about such a question, we would soon conclude that certain Nazi presuppositions were creeping into our mind. We would find such a line of thought profoundly unchristian. And I don't mean to suggest for a moment that we should actually go through such an exercise. I think we need to take it for granted ("it goes without saying") that all human beings on earth -- whether disabled or not -- are persons of worth and deserve to be fed and maintained, even if they are not capable of feeding themselves or providing their own financial support. And so an element of vanzelfsprekendheid is to be found in our attitude toward existence as such.

Let's narrow the focus a bit and consider marriage. If you are a married person, do you automatically have the right to love and respect and support from your marriage partner? Our tendency is to answer with a yes. Wasn't that part of the marriage contract in the first place? Why would people get married if they had to continually justify their desire to receive love from their marriage partner? These are indeed good questions, and I would certainly maintain that one of the differences between marriage and the unchristian practice of many people today who are living together in a quasi-marital situation with no continuing commitment to one another (one reserves the right to walk out of the relationship at any time) lies exactly in this area. And so the word "justification" runs through all these cases and examples that I am raising. Must we always continue to justify ourselves, or do we possess inherent dignity and worth?

Some opponents of marriage dismiss it as an outdated institution for people who enjoy complacency. But is there something wrong with complacency as such? As a man who enjoys marriage, I confess that my enjoyment includes the comfortable complacency that comes with being happily married: I know I can count on the love and support of my wife Janet. I know a warm welcome awaits me when I come home after a day at work. It goes without saying.

May something of this complacency also carry over to church life? May we take our place in the church for granted? May we regard certain issues in church life and theology as forever settled and no longer needing to be justified day by day? Or is there virtue in introducing the spirit of zero-based budgeting into theology and into the social epistemology that underlies the way we interact with the one another within the context of the church?

Odd as it may seem, the young Schilder was not a man for complacency but regarded it as his duty to take issue with any tendency toward vanzelfsprekendheid. And so his opponents found him a very troublesome individual and concluded that something had to be done about him -- and something was. And while the Schilder on whom we look back from the vantage point of decades of subsequent church history seems quintessentially Reformed, it can well be argued that the young Schilder manifested an epistemological attitude that is not in tune with typical Reformed thinking.

More in line with the old-fashioned Reformed approach is Willem van 't Spijker, who reveals his thinking in an article entitled "I Don't Like Talking About Myself." [NOTE 5] In this article he takes issue with the tendency to talk about oneself, which he associates with Luther (he could also have mentioned many evangelical Christians of our time), and he points to Calvin as setting a good example in this regard. Calvin "does not bare his soul" and talk about his personal conversion. Van 't Spijker observes: "This also gives Calvin's theology a certain matter-of-factness, a reality that stands absolutely firm, regardless of what we feel or experience or are able to follow." A few lines later he uses the phrase "Reformed matter-of-factness."

This difference between Luther and Calvin is worth pondering. Whereas Luther had autobiographical tendencies and was known on occasion to relate circumstances in his personal life to theological conclusions, Calvin was a very private and reticent person. Van 't Spijker sides with Calvin and likes the idea of "Reformed matter-of-factness," which is basically another term for vanzelfsprekendheid.

The tendency toward vanzelfsprekendheid also comes through in the way we deal with the Bible. Some of our debates about the proper way to read the Bible are grounded in vanzelfsprekendheid to an extent that we generally do not realize. Certain of the more conservative Reformed Christians are great proponents of "literal interpretation," a notion which is not easy to define. What it comes down to in practice, much of the time, is reading and understanding a certain text in the Bible in the way we have always read and understood it in our church. But if one lives and works in an interdenominational setting (such as the college in which I teach), literal interpretations grounded in separate church traditions sometimes wind up in conflict with one another. We then find out that what "literal" interpretation means, in effect, is that we have always believed thus-and-such concerning the text under discussion.

One of the areas in which we insist that the Bible must be read literally is in connection with the origin of the earth and of our race. The major issue at stake here is the never-ending battle with the evolutionists, who hold a theory with regard to the ancestry of our race that traces its origins to Charles Darwin (1809-82). Now, our attack on the evolutionists has become quite subtle, and philosophy plays a major role in it. And when we examine that role, we discover an element of irony. The same Reformed people who are such great believers in vanzelfsprekendheid when it comes to church life and theology seem to adopt a different epistemological posture when they sally forth to do battle with the evolutionists.

First of all, they accuse the evolutionists are falling into vanzelfsprekendheid -- and they are right to complain on this score. In the minds and rhetoric of many evolutionists, especially those who object strongly to any toleration of the teaching of what they like to call "creationism" in public schools, we see vanzelfsprekendheid at work in a very powerful way. We are told on television that the evolutionary origin of our race is simply a fact -- not a theory. It needs to be taught in our public schools to the exclusion of any other understanding of where our race might have come from. That our race came into existence via evolution goes without saying: the matter simply speaks for itself.

The battle against evolutionism as it is conducted in Christian high schools and especially in Christian colleges of the Reformed stripe draws significantly upon philosophy. In effect, it makes a temporary ally of the very skepticism that Reformed people generally try to banish from church life. And so there are philosophy requirements in such colleges, and the instructors are supposed to extract from the skeptic's arsenal of weaponry some subtle arguments that will make students aware that they have probably been brainwashed in their prior instruction in biology classes in public schools. The objective is to get the students to take a second look at the dogma of the evolutionary origin of the human race. And so one could easily get the impression that Reformed philosophy is quite an open-minded enterprise, a posture which leaves it out of step (mixed metaphor) with Reformed theology.

I feel this tension keenly myself since I make my living as a teacher of philosophy in just such a college. I take pride in doing what I think is a reasonably effective job in terms of sowing those seeds of skepticism with regard to the talk in our culture about the evolutionary origin of our race being a "fact" (I consider it a dogma, and a complicated one at that). In the process I even draw on the work of David Hume!

The need to borrow the skeptic's weapons is part of the reason why philosophers have a reputation for standing with the "liberals" in the Reformed community. A philosopher who is conservative in a way that would be appreciated and respected by the truly conservative theologians among us is a rare bird indeed. When it comes to sowing doubt and making use of the skeptic's tools, it's hard to put the genie back in a bottle once the effect one was looking for, namely, undermining evolutionism, has been achieved.

The main point I wish to make in this essay, then, is that the Reformed community lives in a degree of intellectual schizophrenia when it comes to these matters. I believe there is no denying that the Reformed community draws heavily on an attitude of vanzelfsprekendheid in terms of how things operate in day-to-day life. But it also allows and encourages its rising generation of leaders to drink from the waters of skepticism in order not to be taken in by the dogmas of the secular world. And so it appears that we must switch rapidly back and forth between a pair of attitudes which in the end will prove to be intellectually incompatible.

I suppose there is another answer to this conundrum in terms of what Christian philosophy might be. Is it possible that we are called to adopt something of the posture of Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), which is recommended by Gary Brent Madison in his stimulating book entitled Understanding. [NOTE 6] Madison maintains that a degree of skepticism can create an openness that is ultimately friendly toward the Christian enterprise.

Richard Popkin, a leading historian of skepticism, is also fascinated by the figure of Montaigne and says of him:

Whether Montaigne was a genuine Christian, or whether he was a covert nonbeliever, is still extremely difficult to determine. He and his followers set forth a view called "Christian skepticism," which they insisted was the same as that presented by Saint Paul at the beginning of I Corinthians. By and large, Montaigne's generalized skepticism and his fideism were accepted by the counter-reformers in France as a basis for rebutting the new dogmas of Protestantism, and for accepting the traditional religion on faith. [NOTE 7]
Here, in Roman Catholic circles, we see the same juxtaposition of contrary poles (in this cases labeled fideism and skepticism) that I have pointed to in the Reformed world.

As for me, in conclusion, I am willing to take my stand as a proponent of cognitive humility, since it is my experience, just as it has been the experience of so many others before me, that the older I get, the more obvious it becomes that I really don't know much at all. But on the other hand, I do recognize that the gentle skepticism that flows from the philosophy of Montaigne and his contemporary proponents is not sufficient to run the organizations that make up the Reformed world. And so we have something to sort out. This small essay is only intended as a statement of the problem we face. END


Norman Kemp Smith translation of Kant's first Critique, p. 29 (B30).

"What Is Enlightenment?" in The Philosophy of Kant, ed. C.J. Friedrich (Modern Library, published by Random House of New York in 1949), pp. 132-133.

Berkouwer was haunted by what he and others had done to Schilder, and in his later years, when Schilder was long gone, he wrote about him at length. This comment was made in the content of that reconsideration: see Berkouwer's Zoeken en vinden: Herinneringen en ervaringen (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1989), pp. 246, 252.

Schilder's Struggle for the Unity of the Church, trans. Theodore Plantinga, published by Inheritance Publications of Neerlandia, Alberta, in 1990, and recently reprinted. See especially the long second chapter, which deals with the situation in the churches that prevailed from the time of the deaths of Kuyper and Bavinck in 1920 and 1921 to the time in which alleged doctrinal discrepancies began to be systematically investigated in the late 1930s.

In Lux Mundi (September 1998), pp. 1-2.

Understanding: A Phenomenological-Pragmatic Analysis. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982), see especially pp. 141-142, 154, 277.

"Skepticism in Modern Thought," in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Volume 4, ed. Philip P. Wiener (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973), p. 243.

Click here to go to the Myodicy home page.