CA5 – Conflicting presuppositions

© Jeff Stacey | Last updated:  11 May 2020

The ways people think are based on their underlying beliefs or presuppositions  –  what they assume to be factual or true.  These assumptions are usually adopted subconsciously, mainly resulting from the cultural environment in which people have lived.  So most people are not fully aware of their own presuppositions.

CA5(a)  Western cultures

CA5(a)(i)  Established Christian-influenced religious and cultural traditions

Christianity first reached Europe when Paul crossed over to Philippi  Acts 16:12.  He then traveled widely in Greece and finally reached Rome  Acts 28:13-14,15,16.  He also mentioned the areas east of the Adriatic Sea and may even have travelled to Spain Romans 15:19,24,28.

Although fiercely opposed initially, Christianity spread across Europe.  After about 300 years it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Over the following centuries it developed many forms of expression and greatly influenced the whole of Western civilization.

This resulted in the accumulation of differing Western traditions of Christian-based beliefs and practices, both religious and cultural.  Some of these were not derived from the Bible or were based on distorted understandings of the Bible’s contents.  They can still pose confronting challenges to Bible-based beliefs.

 CA5(a)(ii)  Logical reasoning as the basis of establishing facts

Modern Western thought is generally based on logical reasoning.  So there is skepticism about anything that has not been interpreted, explained or “proven” by rational analysis.

Yet this reasoning method is really only a technique based on various assumptions.  When applied to a particular issue, this process usually adopts some further assumptions specific to that issue.  Logic is then used to analyse the issue within the framework of these prior assumptions.  But it means no findings will be possible that are outside this framework.  That is,  “presuppositions determine conclusions”, or “where you start will set the boundaries of where you finish.”

Obviously there is nothing absolute about such a process.  Its assumptions may not have been clarified or even identified.  Yet even if they are, they can only be validated on the basis of further assumptions.  So all the findings are relative to other prior findings or conclusions.  The reliability of rational analysis is therefore only as strong as the correctness of its assumptions.

CA5(a)(iii)  Applying rational analysis

Rational analysis attempts to apply logic as a rigorous discipline.  When used skilfully, the findings tend to take on a degree of authority as to their correctness.  This approach is of course the foundation of scientific method and has proven to be most effective in those fields.  That is because specific assumptions can be defined, then tested and validated by rigorous repeatable experiments.

However, in other fields of human perception and knowledge it is not possible to precisely define and prove the presuppositions involved.  An example would be when seeing beauty in nature, music, literature and visual arts.  Such aesthetic appreciation is basically intuitive and descriptive rather than logically analytical.  Attempting to rationally analyse beauty can even tend to destroy it!  To insist on such analytical methods also discredits the ability of people to validly perceive things in ways other than logically.

CA5(a)(iv)  Limitations in applying rational analysis to the Bible

There is nothing wrong with using logical reasoning in biblical studies where appropriate.  The Bible itself refers to the use of reasoning Acts 17:2-3,4,17, 18:4,  Hebrews 11:19.  It will be obvious that I have used reasoning myself in my flow-charts and explanations.  For example, my use of such words as “so”, “because”, “consequently” and “therefore” all imply a sequence of reasoning.  Even the Charts themselves with their flow of numbered boxes linked by arrows imply such sequences.  Yet this all tries to stay within the Bible’s own assumed frame of reference or presuppositions, as I attempt to analyse it.

Historical research also uses rational analysis in the assessment of ancient literature and artifacts.  These historical and archaeological sources are always “random remnants” and their contents are usually incomplete.  So reasoning is applied to the available data on the basis of various assumptions.  This tests the relative probabilities of theories about historical facts and events.  Such methods have also been applied to the historical settings and background of the Bible.

However, there are problems in trying to use logical thought to address “ultimate” spiritual issues such as God and ethics Ecclesiastes 7:23, 1Corinthians 1:19-20,21.  The appropriate assumptions are crucial!  Yet they cannot be proven by logic or scientific experiment.  So they can only be based on the personal perceptions, experiences and consequent convictions of the thinkers.  This of course affects the answers.  But it is all too easy to rationalize and justify anything!  How can that be overcome?

The Bible’s approach is simply to assume a whole range of supernatural or spiritual presuppositions about God and the universe.  But are they true?  How can anyone know?

The Bible replies along the lines of “try them and see”.  In other words, it links insight to personal motivation Isaiah 55:6-7,8-9, Jeremiah 29:13.  Jesus Christ made willingness to accept the Bible’s assumptions and then commitment to act on them, as essential to perceiving and becoming convinced that they are true John 5:39-40, 7:17, see also John 3:32-34.

Yet to do this requires coming to an initial degree of trust or faith in what the Bible says.  This can begin to happen if a person is prepared to respect and read the Bible as it is.  Plenty of people have done this (including myself, eventually) and made the most important discovery of our lives!

CA5(a)(v)  Objections to adopting the Bible’s assumptions

 Admittedly this approach of accepting the Bible’s assumptions can be difficult.  Many would see it as simplistically understanding the Bible “literally” or “uncritically”.  I see it as using a basically literary method, but which is “non-discarding” in its response to biblical information that conflicts with current knowledge or beliefs.  My aim is to try and see what the Bible itself is emphasizing, instead of focusing on a whole lot of other issues that it raises but is not really addressing. I also admit that I often have to resort to praying to God, to enable me to “see” what is central and emphasised!

The  crucial issue concerns why study the Bible.  Is it in order to understand it? Is it to accept it, or to criticize it?  Do I intend to apply anything that it says?  Am I sitting in judgment over the Bible, or vice versa?  This all goes to the very heart of each person’s attitudes to God Hebrews 4:12.  It challenges any reader’s willingness to humbly acknowledge God’s existence and authority and therefore submit to Him.  No wonder there are objections!

CA5(b)  Non-Western cultures

The assumptions underlying the ways people think and communicate in non-Western cultures have also been developed over many centuries.  They have derived from long-standing religious or other beliefs, as applied in diverse cultural and ethnic environments.  And just as in Western cultures, the people are generally not consciously aware of their own assumptions.  These deeply affect the ways they view ultimate issues and react to biblical versions of them Acts 14:8-18!!

Christianity originated in the Middle East amongst the Jewish people.  Yet historically the adoption of Christianity and development of churches was predominantly in Europe until about 1600.  So it came to be seen as a European religion.  It then gradually spread to other parts of the world, mostly by means of missionary movements.  These encountered many cross-cultural barriers to be overcome.

For these reasons it is vital that the Bible be translated into the vernacular languages of non-Western peoples.  They can then study and understand it on its own terms, as perceived through their own cultural ways of thinking.  But for them to accept the Bible’s message can also be a long and difficult process.  Again the challenge is to be willing to believe the Bible’s assumed facts and start thinking and acting on the basis of them.  Ideally this leads to Bible-based theology and practices that are culturally vernacular, rather than based only on Western cultural presuppositions.  No race, place or culture is excluded! Romans 10:11-13.  

Actually only God can bring people to believe in and love Him John 6:43-44.   But He makes Himself known TO them THROUGH others who are already His committed followers Romans 10:14.  This requires communication in ways that can be understood by those who do not believe.

CA5(c)  Applying the Bible to life

Most of what I have written in this article so far has been about appropriate reasons, attitudes and approaches to reading the Bible.  My hope is that these will be adopted, leading to personal commitment to what the Bible says.

But how is this then to be applied in the diverse life-situations of each committed person, using whatever abilities they have?  Their ultimate challenge is to find how to express God’s nature to others and help them to become committed to God also [see NT3].

As already said, the ways people think are based on their underlying beliefs or presuppositions    –   what they assume to be factual or true  –  mainly resulting from their cultural environment.   Most people who are committed to obeying God live amongst others who do not have this commitment.  So there is a conflict of presuppositions.  How then can they communicate?

It involves expression of God’s nature first by actions and attitudes.  Then explanations in words follow.  These involve engagement with all manner of questions that arise from the conflict of presuppositions about life and truth.  The most vital way to address these is through shared studying of the Bible 2Timothy 3:16-17,  Psalm 119:130 along with a wide knowledge of the listeners’ cultural environment.

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