When it Comes to the Bible, Many Christians are disciples of Descartes

It’s 1983.
I’m in a Baptist church.
That’s scary enough.

I’m sitting before a council of men who are testing my readiness to enter the ministry.

It isn’t going well.

First of all, I didn’t know that one had to “enter” the ministry.

But, in order to fulfill one of the qualifications to participate in launching a new church, something I was curious about, I “needed” to be ordained because soon I would be “baptizing new believers”.

I didn’t know you had to be ordained to baptize new converts. In reality, I didn’t even know you had to baptize new converts.

Secondly, they’re asking me questions and I’m getting all the answers wrong.

To make matters worse, I’m not the only person being tested today. And, the other guy is good…real good.

The serious men sitting around the table ask a question. The other candidate answers and the table becomes a sea of nodding heads. They ask him more questions and their enthusiasm grows. The accumulated weight of his right answers is creating a doctrinal and theological ecstasy. If we keep going like this revival is going to break out and I’m going to feel really uncomfortable.

Baptist’s don’t dance. But that could change right here right now and I don’t want to be here if that happens.

They turn to me. They ask a question.

I answer naturally.

They steal glances at one another as if searching each others faces for cues to right behavior. Their response is underwhelming.

Because they alternate between us as they ask questions, it creates a kind of roller coaster effect.
He answers. Applause.
I answer. Silence.
He answers. Cheers and hooting and leaning forward to the table.
I answer. Ughs and leaning back in their chairs.

That may be a little exaggerated, but not much.

Up and down we went with the distance between their responses to each of us growing ever wider.

After a while, they stop stealing glances at each other. A couple of the men rock all the way onto the back two legs of their chairs. The questions keep coming.

I got it wrong.
Women in leadership?
I got it wrong.
And the straw that broke the camels back, the Inerrancy of the Scriptures?

One of them drops his pencil on his yellow writing tablet. The silence is deep. I sense that the disappointment of some is profound. The antagonism of others is tangible.

The other candidate is obviously feeling empathy for me. Everything about this moment is utterly, beautifully truthful. It was saying to me, you don’t really fit here. They were graciously broad, though, and ordained me anyway because I had an “evangelistic” spirit.

Thinking back, I should have listened to myself. In all fairness, that would not be the last time that would happen. It would be the first of many times. I still had much to learn. But there was more going on there than my lack of knowledge. I was experiencing the fact that the past is always in the present.


Think 1600s.
That’s right. Century 17.
Knowledge in that world came from the outside in. Truth was taught by the Church or dictated by the state. They didn’t have to explain themselves. They simply knew better. Like a parent who tells a child, because I said so.

Renee Descartes, on the other hand, was not a fan of the “because I said so” school of knowledge. Descartes, considered the father of the modern era, desired a way of getting at “truth” that would work for everyone. If men and nations could agree on a universal way of knowing “truth” then consensus, agreement, and finally peace could be achieved.

Descartes concluded that a reliable belief system needed to be constructed on a reliable foundation.

Note: this is a key word: foundation.

If the foundational belief were not rock solid, he reasoned, then the entire system of beliefs would be questionable. But if you were able to begin with a foundation of certain knowledge, then you could build a new world. Eventually (in the 1900s) this process would be called “foundationalism”.

And so Descartes began his search. What do we really know? What he needed was a foundation that no one could doubt, an indubitable foundation.

Note: this is another key phrase: indubitable foundation.

To get there he employed the principle of doubt. Doubt everything. If it can be doubted you cannot build on it.

He questioned everything about his own belief system and like an onion it began to peel away layer by layer. He was finally left with nothing save one thing: I think therefore I am. He could not doubt his own existence. He began to build a system of beliefs from this new foundation.

After Descartes, the need for an “indubitable” foundation was assumed. Without this certain foundation, we could know nothing with certainty.

Science had the scientific method as its way of establishing its foundations for knowledge. Philosophy had logic, syllogisms and reason. Over time, these together ate away at the “because we say so” truth claims of those in authority, both state and church.

Fast-forward in time to 1926 and cross the Atlantic in space.
Yes, Century 20.
There you will find a court case in Tennessee known as the Scopes Monkey Trial that pits these two foundations against each other.  The challenge of the Church and the Bible as a foundation for knowledge had been heating up over time — the “Sun” centered solar system, evolution, etc. At its worst, the Church often asserted its “Divine Right” to violently oppress free thinkers. But usually, these challenges led theologians to debate and defend the Bible as the foundation of faith.

Historically, theology has often been a response to philosophy (ht: Nancy Murphy). This was no exception. The challenge of two hundred years of philosophical debate and scientific discovery drove US theologians and denominations to engage in the debate over the foundations of Christian knowledge.

Science and reason promised to give all men everywhere the indubitable foundations needed to know “what is real” and “what is right and true” Theologians fighting for the legitimacy of the Christian tradition to speak to these issues within a culture of science and reason, wrestled to establish foundations for the faith.

Fourty-seven years later again, in 1983, I sat in a room filled with leaders from a good local church. This was a committee of faithful men gathered together to assess my qualifications for ministry.

To a large extent, their faith had been shaped by the conversation with Descartes and the Enlightenment project. I understood that for them the scriptures were the foundation and basis for faith. Their entire belief system, if not founded on an indubitable foundation, could potentially be brought down.

Why I didn’t share this fear, I don’t know.

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy was a “hedge” of protection they had raised to protect this foundation. Because the critical approach to the study of scripture had made this already dubious claim difficult to justify, even the hedge had a hedge: it is the original manuscripts of the scriptures that were absolutely flawless. Yes, the Bibles we held in our hands may have a glitch here and there but the original documents themselves were a pristine work of beauty from the hand of God on which men and women could risk their lives.

In what museum were these originals contained? Oh that. There are no original documents.

Let’s recap. How did we know the gospel was true and how could we prove the truth of the gospel to others? The answer: Inerrant, original manuscripts that don’t exist. That’s how. These flawless original manuscripts give an unspoken pass to the Bibles we held in our hands, a kind of imputed inerrancy.

Modern theologians, and everyone in that room at my session with the ordination council, were shaped by the Modern era’s focus on foundations. As foundationalists on the conservative side of the spectrum, the men in the room were objectivists. Their faith was grounded on the scriptures, an object, a thing. On the liberal side, faith was grounded on “experience,” the subjective aspects of faith.

They each saw the other as being in error, as placing their faith in the wrong place, but in fact they were kissing cousins. They both grounded their faith on a foundation (scripture or experience). That’s what Descartes taught them to do. Without an indubitable foundation the whole building falls.

But no one can question your experience, the liberals said.

No one can question the Bible, the conservatives said.

Oh yes they can.

Certainty was more than a need; it was a lust. Everything depended on having a public foundation that could not be challenged. Without this indubitable foundation the Christian voice would be lost. This was a war Christians were not willing to lose even if no one was fighting them anymore.

In 1983 conservative leaders, like some of the men on my ordination council, and liberal Christ following thinkers, were still fighting over foundations as if somebody cared.

But the issues they had battled over no longer mattered. The answers they had polished over decades of debate did not address any of the new questions being asked. Few believed in objective, absolute truth anymore. Even science had lost its privileged position as objective and unbiased. The questions now assumed the realities of relativism, subjectivism and pluralism. What no one in the room during my ordination council knew was that the philosophers, after a couple of hundred years of testing out foundations for knowledge, decided that the search didn’t have a future.

At the beginning of the 21st century, many thinkers both believer and secular are post-foundational while many Christians are still disciples of Descartes.

In fact, any claim to an indubitable foundation for knowledge today is looked upon with suspicion and distrust, as an attempts to impose one’s will over others. (If this is true, think about what much of our preaching must sound like to a post-foundationalist listener). The post-modern person was someone who understood that while the search for a universally held absolute truth may be illusion, the drive to power was not.

Creating a world that works for everyone could no longer be based, as Descartes had hoped, on a universally indubitable  foundation for knowledge. As followers of Descartes, many Christians feared the subjectivism, relativism, and pluralism of postmodern culture.

Yet, postmodern culture—and the set of “isms” that revolve around it—was never faith’s main enemy in the 20th century western world. Not even close. Faith’s enemies were what they have always been: hate, betrayal, contempt, greed, arrogance, indifference, revenge.

The enemies have always been the set of entrenched immoral behaviors that revolve around the reality of our inhumanity. These were, are and ever will be the enemy, and not just of the church but of all humanity.

Contrary to stereotypes, the real postmodern problem was not that we had lost the ability to know the truth, but that too many knew all too well the truth about the human condition. Humans would use anything, even the divinely inspired Word of God, to assert power over others.

What do you think?

Other Similar Articles:
The Bible as Human Literature


27 responses to “When it Comes to the Bible, Many Christians are disciples of Descartes”

  1. James Petticrew Avatar
    James Petticrew

    I think I wish I could think like you

  2. Peter Keady Avatar
    Peter Keady

    Hey Alex,

    Thanks for the post. I think you hit on some very good points regarding Biblicism. I’m not a fan of it for the very simple reason of John 5:39. I had a completely different ordination experience. But, the consistent story I do hear is very much like yours. Sorry about that.

    On another note, I don’t teach inerrancy in the way you state it above. It’s not about the accuracy of the written texts but the direction the texts direct us. I think it’s a fudge factor” that inerrancy is only for the original manuscripts, but then I think it’s that way because it does depend on translation. Some have translated the original languages pretty poorly for their own gain so, do they retain inerrancy? Probably not. I’ve taught others that inerrancy means the Scriptures will never lead us astray, not that they spelled Abraham incorrectly with a “q”. Once the Scriptures become fallible, where do we go from there, humanism? Our best guess? I’m a product of Modernism more than Liberalism so I do lean that way. But I’m trying to jettison that as well for a more focused glorification of Jesus.

    I push hard for all those around me to be human and Godly. After I met Jesus I was surrounded by inhuman Christians and I absorbed that for 20 years. I’m a recovering evangelical, recovering Catholic, recovering Fundamentalist, just trying to be human, a son of Adam.

  3. Alex McManus Avatar

    Nice, Peter.
    Please don’t apologize. My experience in 1983 doesn’t bother me. It exhilarates me. I find it useful as illustrative material. I totally agree on the direction of the texts. I write about that in my other posts on the Bible. I have picked two trajectories from the scriptures that along with Jesus serve as my GPS…and I think these twin trajectories and Jesus serve as the trajectories for history as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Chad Becker Avatar

    More on this topic: an excellent book, a little dated now but right up your alley – Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity http://www.amazon.com/Cosmopolis-Modernity-Stephen-Edelston-Toulmin/dp/0226808386/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1243491026&sr=8-3

    Agree totally…recently re-read this book for the 3rd time and follows the same logic – great post alex

  5. Dcn David Avatar
    Dcn David

    While I don’t think it was really his intention, the problems Descartes began are epic. For example, if we accept the concept, “I think therefore I am,” how can we reject the corollary, “You don’t think, therefore you aren’t.” It has a profound impact on how we view abortion or dealing with those with Alzheimer’s or the mentally challenged. That’s without going into the issues you raised of relativism etc.
    All sin is related to some desire of the self, which makes sacrifice of the self the ultimate gift.

  6. Angela Harms Avatar

    Wow! I love how you wrote about this. What a clear, readable explanation of foundationalism! Yay! 🙂

  7. rob Avatar

    You sound very much like a prof I had in seminary (john franke)! Great stuff. i’ve been trying to navigate a post-foundationalist understanding of faith for some time now. it’s scary (because everything isn’t spelled out in black and white for you), but it’s the only way to place faith in God and faith in the bible (or, I should say, faith in our interpretation of the Bible…as no one reads the Bible without bias/presupposition).

  8. rob Avatar

    “but it’s the only way to place faith in God and faith in the bible ”

    I mean it’s the only way to place faith in God and NOT faith in the bible.

  9. Peter Keady Avatar
    Peter Keady

    AH, a Franke disciple. I had him for one class waaaay back when “Beyond Foundationalism” was just an infant.

    Rob, it’s a hard path to navigate because of all the things we have to unlearn. That’s the prime thing to help people through. Yet, if we’ve come to the end of our rope spiritually, so to speak, we are much more apt to jettison our Biblicism. This can be very painful because we’ve gotten out spiritual identity from what we believe and what we believe about the Bible. In reality, our beliefs should never define our relationship with Jesus, that’s to make God in our own image. But we’ve done that for centuries, haven’t we?

  10. rob Avatar

    Yeah, Peter, you’re right. What I have a tendancy to do is to question those things that I’m in the process of unlearning around those who are comfortable leaving such things “learned”. And it has gotten me in to trouble. So, I need a safe place to wrestle and question. I’m trying to come to a faith that is my own, and not one that is an imposition from my past fundamentalist and word-of-faith experiences.

  11. Alex McManus Avatar

    Chad (comment #4),

    I just checked out the link you included. I’ve heard of this book and author, and now having followed your link, I’ve read the summary and some of the reviews. Looks fantastic. Gotta pick it up and read it. Thanks again.

  12. Alex McManus Avatar

    Dcn Dave (comment #5), You really brought in a new angle for me. My step dad has Alzheimer’s and I find myself wondering sometimes if he is in there somewhere, lost, confused, alone. It’s not just theory then. Thanks.

  13. Alex McManus Avatar

    You’re welcome, Angela (comment #6). I must give a hat tip to Nancy Murphy’s 1996 book, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism.
    (Note to Chad: She mentions Toulmin too!)

    Rob and Peter, read your reference to John Franke. I must admit I didn’t know who he was so I googled him. I’ll have to add his name to my reading list, now that I am starting to read Christian writers.

  14. Tim Wright Avatar


    I am not this smart. When I read the words of Jesus and he says:

    Matthew 10:7-8
    7As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a]drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.

    I think he means it. Not pray for the sick, but heal the sick. He gave us His authority, if we don’t walk in it, it is our responsibility to pursue Him, to set people free.

    If Jesus spent a big part of His time doing this, so should we. We don’t because we accept a much lower level of intimacy and authority than He wants for us.

    I am not saying that we should not also create culture, all the seven mountain vision. It is all for His glory.

    The longer I follow Jesus, the simpler it becomes.


    1. Alex McManus Avatar

      Tim (comment #14), sounds pretty smart to me. But then I’m a very basic person myself.
      My daughter, Erica, brought this same verse to my attention last week.
      I tend to use Luke’s version when training church planters.
      But for the first time, under my daughter’s guidance, I saw what I had not before.
      Jesus told his disciples to raise the dead. Not just pray for the dead, but raise them.
      There is much for me yet to learn, discover, and experience.

  15. Peter Keady Avatar
    Peter Keady

    Hey Tim. I completely agree with you! I’m been meditating on the LORD’s Prayer, specifically, “Your Kingdom Come”. The question I’ve asked is, “If we are told by Christ to pray for the Kingdom to come, what precisely does that look like? What did it look like when Jesus said, ‘This is the Kingdom’ “? The answer will surprise and shock many church goers. The answer is tough to swallow because it results in more freedom, more captives loosed, the dead raised, the sick healed, just as you state above (post #14). We HAVE settled for less because less is comfortable. Less does not require our sacrifice, our sanctification, or our dependence on God nearly as much as the Bible suggests we should be. In John 14 Jesus said that “Greater things than what I’m doing you will do.” We don’t believe it so we don’t do it and we don’t pursue it. Push on, Tim! You’re not alone!

    “Being” always, whether we realize it or not, precedes “doing”. We only do what we believe.

    I will choose to believe Jesus until my actions prove my beliefs!

  16. Tim Wright Avatar


    As for his Kingdom, we might be probably be all aware of the 7 Mountains of Culture, if not please expose yourself:


    My life in the past 2 years has been more influenced through the ministry of Bill Johnson at Bethel Church.


    His podcast is also on iTunes.

    He also knows that he only sees in part and honors the entire body of Christ.

    He mixes with Lutherans, Anglicans, and knows that their journey has insights that he needs to learn from.

    At first I disagreed with so much of his insights about bringing the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven. I am a charismatic Christian and am totally expecting to Jesus to speak to me and expect Jesus to give me prophetic words over my life through believers who also walk in this gifting.

    I have had three prophetic words from three people who I knew who did not ever talk about me and never shared the word that they gave me. This words were 100% consistent and as I pursue Jesus with a sense of his fulfulling of this prophetic word. This has shifted my life entirely.


    1. Alex McManus Avatar

      It sounds like you have been on a long journey and have a more open heart towards truth now, Tim. Best to you on the journey…Alex

    2. Alex McManus Avatar

      Hey Tim, I checked out the link — loved it. I’m more accustomed to the language of “domains” versus “mountains”, but the idea is the same and hugely important.

  17. Tracy Harms Avatar
    Tracy Harms

    You wrote:
    “The questions now assumed the realities of relativism, subjectivism and pluralism.”

    Apparently, few also recognize that abandoning foundationalism and certainty does not imply adopting the “-isms” you list. Perhaps that can change over time.

    Setting aside foundationalism is a start; thanks for voicing that so openly.

    I’m hoping that Christians will look hard and long into the influence of Christian ideas on the origins and persistence of that aspect of “Western” culture.

  18. Dcn David Avatar
    Dcn David

    Tim – I watched the video link. I agree that there are seven areas of influence and it is important for us to pay attention to all seven areas. The fact that 90% of people don’t feel their church is equipping them for their day to day life is striking wake-up call.

    Within the video, one portion brought to mind the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the moneychangers for their foundational contributions fuel and fund bringing forth the Kingdom of God. For by bringing economic impact, I will have influence.”

  19. Greg Borchert` Avatar
    Greg Borchert`

    Wow Alex. This is really good.

    Reading the first section on your candidacy interview, I remembered hearing Craig Groeschel tell the story of his initial attempt at ordination – when the committee declined his candidacy. It is important to note that Groeschel follows that story with the statement that clearly, Jesus would have failed their test too.

    You write: “Few believed in objective, absolute truth anymore. Even science had lost its privileged position as objective and unbiased. The questions now assumed the realities of relativism, subjectivism and pluralism. What no one in the room during my ordination council knew was that the philosophers, after a couple of hundred years of testing out foundations for knowledge, decided that the search didn’t have a future.”

    What you start to realize, Alex, and I suppose you have realized this as much as I have, is that there comes a point in time in which it becomes very difficult to have real conversations with people who seem locked into tradition, historical systematic theologies…the past.

    I have a very good friend who is a prominent Lutheran pastor. He’s brilliant, both very smart and charismatic – a great speaker and teacher. But, conversations have become increasingly difficult. His response to virtually every statement I make comes straight from Luther’s theology. It seems impossible to have conversations outside of that framework.

    Anyway…too much to address here.

    Men have always twisted scripture to make it fit their self-serving aims. It was the church – the Baptist church more than any other – that used the Bible as a justification for slavery for centuries. The church became increasingly divided on the subject, but in the early 19th century most of the resistance to abolition found its voice through the “Christian” church. Look at women’s suffrage and you see the same story.

    A couple of days ago I read something written by a conservative “evangelical Christian”, who was echoing some things Rush Limbaugh has said. This man said he hoped that Bin Laden would launch an attack on the United States, so that we could – in effect – have reason to go back to the prudent torture policies of Dick Cheney. I thought after reading that…you know…both he and I claim to follow Jesus. I’m left wondering if we’re talking about the same Jesus. I don’t know this Jesus who tortures people, I only know the Jesus who was tortured for us…

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful posts.

  20. John Gnotek Avatar
    John Gnotek

    Sure is a lot of “isms.”

  21. Brian Dumas Avatar
    Brian Dumas

    Sounds a lot like the the professors at Wayne State University in the late 60’s.

    1. Alex McManus Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Brian. How so?

  22. James Knight Avatar

    Alex, I found your page off a Facebook Ad… Thought you would like to know that.

    I do have a question. Do you believe that false information exists in the bible?

    1. Alex McManus Avatar

      Hey James, Thanks for the question. I think that what we have in the Bible is eye-witness accounts that have been codified by a community of faith.
      That means that all the properties of eye-witness testimony apply, both the power and weaknesses. For example, two eye-witnesses to a hit-and-run car accident where a person is left injured may disagree that the car that fled the scene was black or dark blue, a two-door or a four-door, but they both agree that there was car that hit someone and then ran. Power and weakness.

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