Is R. C. Sproul’s Rationalism Keeping the Culture Christian or Keeping the Culture from Becoming Christian?

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Published on: September 22, 2014

Dr. R. C. Sproul seems to believe that by practicing and recommending a certain view of reason — the classical cum modern view — he is somehow saving the culture for Christianity.  I don’t get it.  This culture is already decidedly anti-Christian because the modern view of reason is a myth about how traditions like Christianity can be falsified.  How could continuing to promote that view of reason save the cultural possibility of Christianity rather than ruin it?

Instead of helping this culture become more Christian, by ruining modern reason, as we postmodern and very orthodox Christians are wont to do, Sproul seems to think that our postmodernism is somehow ruining the culture for Christianity because he fails to distinguish, in the first place, between Christianity and his modern, proposed partners — theology (or a Christian “world-view”) and science.  Dr. Sproul is not in the business of saving this culture for practical Christianity but for science-slash-theology.  These are not the same thing.  The former project is pragmatic.  The latter is merely rationalist. 

In any event, Dr. Sproul’s view of the cause of the cultural problem would seem to violate his own traditional, realist view of causality (where the cause comes before the effect).  How could the recent, postmodern view of reason be responsible for the steady degradation of Christian culture in the West?  It is the modern view of reason (as a supposedly universal method) which has been in charge during Christianity’s cultural decline.

Sproul dramatically declares that the death of the principle of non-contradiction in postmodern thought (by implication, the whole postmodern view of how language takes on meaning) is the death of modern science as a source of truth, a view of Reality.  Yeah!  Let it die.  Why reconstruct the devil’s voice box at the very moment God has ripped it out?  Doesn’t Dr. Sproul understand that scientific realism (the notion that science provides a literal description of ultimate Reality), as reductionism, is a competing tradition — the major competitor to Christianity?  Apparently not.  Like my alma mater, Wheaton College, he seems to believe that not only can scientific realism and the Christian tradition be integrated, they must be integrated, because science is capable of telling us the truth about Reality, and, to a large extent, has actually done so.  Nonsense.

Now of course it is not my postmodern point that the principle of non-contradiction is dead as if every tradition had no version of it.  They all have a version of it — including scientific realism.  And that is the point.  The practical meaning of the principle of non-contradiction is determined by one’s whole view of Reality.  Sproul is not going to keep quantum physicists from saying all kinds of strange, seemingly contradictory things while supposing that they are still offering us a view of Reality which is, ipso facto, coherent.  Insofar as scientists, theologians, and philosophers construct views of Reality, they always insist that their account of Reality, no matter how strange, must finally be coherent because it is, after all, realism.  And so light really is both a wave and a particle and particles really can be in two different places at the same time and a cause really can come after its effect.  The meaning of this strange grammar is finally pragmatic; it gets results in the laboratory and in technological design.  And Christianity gets results too, in the real, lived world, precisely because it says that a man can be God and God can be three and one at the same time.  It’s all about the practical results.  It is the practical goals which are coherent.  Therefore the rules for using the effective language are coherent.  Language, as Wittgenstein noticed, was not designed to satisfy rationalists.  It was designed, by God, to get things done. 

“Now wait a minute!” Sproul might say to me.  “I can explain how God can be one and three at the same time and divine and human at the same time.  I can do more than just use language this way.  I can do more than just assert this.  I can do metaphysics.  I can describe how God is one substance with three different manifestations.”  Fine.  Then all Dr. Sproul has done is demonstrate how both theology and science appeal to vague metaphysics, which cannot be verified or falsified, in order to establish the coherence of any set of propositions.  In other words, traditions, views of Reality, make their coherence practically unassailable by simply making it metaphysical.  We can always change the relationship between things metaphysically, and therefore unfalsifiably, to prevent language from becoming meaningless, to support its intended use and effect.  No one I know of is claiming that it is meaningful to simultaneously assert P and ~P since doing so cannot imply any coherent action.  Coherence is much more interestingly about whether or not the rules for using an assortment of terms are practically consistent.  And of course they are always consistent in a given tradition, in the long run, because the way in which they are used by the adherents is making them consistent — making them have some consistent effect.  It is the use of the language which establishes the grammar, not vice versa.

Dr. Sproul no doubt believes it is “supremely arrogant” to conclude that the principle of non-contradiction has no clear meaning apart from some competing view of Reality, apart from a tradition of linguistic use.  But then it seems perfectly obvious to me that it is “supremely arrogant” to suppose just the opposite — that one man’s “linguistic precision” can possibly be made an absolute authority by some ethereal, Platonic, super-linguistic standard.  If Dr. Sproul still thinks the meaning of language is referential, rather than being identical with its use (where referring to something is just one use among many), then he is creating the primary condition under which debate never ends: Peter says “coherence” unfailingly refers to one absolute meaning floating around out there somewhere, and Paul says it unfailingly refers to another, both proving that they are both wrong.  And here again, we see the practical truth in the postmodern point that there is no debate, no conversation, no dialogue, no real logical contact between competing uses of language.  All I can do for Dr. Sproul is recommend the later Wittgenstein who, in my opinion, has liberated Christian language practically speaking.

Very interestingly, Dr. Sproul’s description of the principle of non-contradiction is not actually the statement of a logical principle, but a metaphysical assertion demonstrating the Parmenidian, not Christian origins of modern western science.  He says that x cannot be and not be at the same time, and in the same relationships.  This is pure metaphysics.  Democritus answered this metaphysical claim with more metaphysics, just like the “physicists” of our own time.  He said that atoms, particles, were unchanging being engaged in constantly changing combinations.  But the ultimate particles were identical — indistinguishable being as they are now.   (Wolfgang Smith describes them as pure potential in The Quantum Enigma.)  And so the very same potential (being) is both in and not in the same relationship with itself at the same time.  In other words, modern physics is impossible if Dr. Sproul’s principle of non-contradiction obtains.  To suppose that the particles are distinguished by time and space is to promote still another metaphysical assumption — that time and space are absolute, and not a function of matter, of being, as general relativity asserts.  We have now traveled a long way from being able to identify a metaphysically neutral principle of non-contradiction.

I suspect Dr. Sproul will not settle for the merely historical, practical, existential meaning of the trinity, which is that we experience God in three ways and therefore we talk about Him in three ways.  That is all I need to know practically speaking.  And it is probably all I can know.  And all the physicists have to do to establish the coherence of their view of Reality is come up with metaphysical interpretations of quantum Reality (see Wolfgang Smith, The Quantum Enigma) which are compatible with everything from Aristotelianism and Thomism, to idealism, atheism and naturalism.

Dr. Sproul is barking up the wrong tree.  He is not helping Christianity take over this culture by implicitly defending rationalist nostrums that have clearly broken down in the postmodern age.  He is holding us back.

At one point in the radio address we have linked to above, Dr. Sproul, for the sake of saving Einstein’s notion that God does not play dice with the universe, seems to buy into traditional Newtonian determinism.  Well then, is he a determinist or will he do even more metaphysics, present us with even more sleight of hand, in explaining how this Newtonian determinism is compatible with freedom?  Of course he will.  In the end Dr. Sproul must insist that we accept all of his metaphysics (his philosophical theology) in order to coherently insist that we must accept his account of reason and, in particular, his account of the principle of non-contradiction.  And that is the whole postmodern point.  Our account of Reality and the practical meaning of the principle of non-contradiction all arrive together, at the same time.  The full content of a tradition, and its rational standards, are inseparable.  The latter are not standing outside of the tradition independently justifying belief in it; independently judging its coherence.

In my book The Problem with Wheaton, A Postmodern Analysis of the Christian Academy’s Failure to Challenge the Culture (available on I complain, on the basis of my historical experience, that the essential problem with an institution like Wheaton, insofar as it admits to the mission of redeeming the culture, is precisely this implicit, sometimes explicit (see Sproul), and always naïve embrace of the modern idea that reason is universal and therefore provides the foundation for a fruitful dialogue with the world, constantly integrating its reductionist products about the nature of Reality into some mythological, constantly updated Christian world-view as opposed to the Christian tradition which is much different for its anti-rationalism and much more stable and orthodox by comparison.  See A. N. Whitehead for a demonstration of just how liberal a “Christian world-view” can become and Arthur F. Holmes for a confession of how incomplete and tentative, and therefore bereft of a clear practical purpose, such a world-view always remains. 

How in the world could Dr. Sproul’s analysis of the problem, and mine, be so completely different?  He thinks science is now violating THE principle of non-contradiction.  I have no idea what THE principle of non-contradiction is.  He thinks that reason must, by its very nature, insure the survival of science and theology.  I think that a clear understanding of how reason really works, based on a clear understanding of how language really works, will destroy scientific realism and help us understand that the Christian tradition is not systematic theology, thank God.  Such incommensurateness illustrates the postmodern relativity of reason, including any principle of non-contradiction, as if any such principle, or even modus ponens, could be expressed and understood entirely outside of a text — a specific use of language demonstrating implicit rules for using that language; a grammar serving concrete existential goals.  My goal is the complete destruction of modern, western rationalism.  I will not miss the notion that science describes Reality or multi-volume systematic theologies. 

After listening to Dr. Sproul’s radio address, ask yourself why you might be interested in the debate between theologians, scientists, and philosophers about the origin of the universe.  Why would one find this practically interesting since it is obviously metaphysical, meaning that no competing position can be proven to be true, false, coherent or incoherent.  This could only be of real interest, of practical interest, if one views this debate as being more significant than the clash of competing language games, competing grammars — and I don’t. 

Sproul, like Wheaton, is a rationalist and won’t admit it.  And this does not make him a good scientist.  The scientists are admitting they are stumped — not just about what they are observing, but what it means about the nature of Reality.  Dr. Sproul, apparently, will not accept being stumped in the long run — exactly what I do accept precisely because I think it is the orthodox Christian confession.  Dr. Sproul would rather become some kind of non-deterministic determinist inspiring just as much doubt about the coherence of his position as he is about the position of the Copenhagen physicists. 

Dr. Sproul probably cannot understand why I would accuse him of rationalism because our ways of using language are so incommensurate — demonstrating the postmodern point again.  We have such different views of the details of Reality, and therefore of rationalism, that we cannot make logical contact.  And yet we make practical, existential contact by both confessing our need of Christ’s historical action on our behalf.  For me, this is more than good enough.  But not for Dr. Sproul and Wheaton.  They must have science and theology, and philosophy for that matter, and the half-baked integration of faith and secular learning about Reality, even if the cost is the continuity of post-Christian culture including utterly naïve graduates who take science way too seriously and the reinforcement of a theory of meaning and knowledge which has been consistently exploited to confuse people about whether or not Christianity is “rational.” 

It is not the existence of any absolutely coherent theological system or Christian “world-view” which has made me a Christian.  I am a Christian because of salvation history.  I don’t need a Christian “world-view.”  I need the Christian tradition which is not the same thing.  For an understanding of the difference, see my book The Problem with Wheaton.  (Hint: Its starts with confessing that Christian language about Reality may be entirely incommensurate with secular, “scientific” language about Reality.)

I am afraid that Dr. Sproul is not “renewing our minds.”  I am afraid he is holding them down in the modern, rationalist muck.

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