What Hath the Synthetic A Priori Got To Do With It?

Today there are several well-intentioned, though wildly off the course, Christians trying to find a way to “redeem” the use of secular categories for the sake of Christian theology. In the past we had a term for this—accommodation.

Christians do recognize there are some truths that can be reconciled with the Christian faith. For example, no Christian ought to reject the notion of natures or propositions. Chalcedonian orthodoxy recognizes Jesus Christ had two natures, one human and the other divine, in one person. To reject the concept of natures is to fundamentally misunderstand the Christian faith. Evangelicals go even further and recognize God has revealed Himself in meaningful propositional language, namely, through Scripture. The Bible was inspired by God and written by men. The Bible contains two natures in one set of propositions. Clearly, when non-Christians, such as those within the larger Platonic tradition (i.e., Plato, Aristotle, and Neo-Platonists) affirm truths about reality reconcilable with the Christian faith we ought to affirm the proposition “all truth is God’s truth.” This is precisely what we find taking place in the theologies of Augustine and Aquinas. They did not wholly buy into each Greek system, specifically, it is incorrect to label Aquinas as a mere “baptized Aristotelian.” Aquinas rejected several facets of Aristotle’s system (i.e., one being Aristotle’s understanding of creation, another being Aristotle’s view of women). Therefore, we can affirm this proposition: Christians can affirm all truth is God’s truth, insofar as the truth being affirmed is actually true. Just because someone claims: “general revelation” and “all truth is God’s truth” does not prove the idea under consideration is actually true or reconcilable with the Christian faith.

So, we raise the question: What Hath the Synthetic A Priori Got To Do With It? To many this may seem like an odd question, which raises further question, such as: What is the “synthetic a priori”? What is the point of even asking that question? How does Kant’s epistemology affect modern-day issues?

In brief, I ask the question because the foundation of modern liberal theology rests upon the way they understand and embrace the “synthetic a priori.” Those who attempted to “redeem it” for Christian use found they could not escape from its paradigm, which resulted in theological liberalism. Those who attempted to reconcile the concept, even if only through a half-way step, found they ended up in a form of neo-orthodoxy. Let me briefly explain what I mean.

Throughout Western philosophy there were two predominate schools of thought: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism taught that all knowledge was arrived at prior to experience (hence, a priori). This form of knowledge was affirmed by Plato, many Neo-Platonists, Descartes, Leibniz, and so forth. Empiricism taught that all knowledge came from experience (hence, a posteriori). This form of knowledge was affirmed by Aristotle, Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Hume, and many proponents of the scientific method. Here is a brief summary of the two views:

These classifications of knowledge explain two competing theories concerning the origin of our knowledge. Philosophers also pronounced different types of judgments about the nature of our knowledge and their relationship to propositions. Historically, a priori approaches to knowledge affirmed the analytic nature of propositions, while a posteriori approaches affirmed the synthetic nature of propositions. Analytic statements are those in which the predicate is contained within the subject (i.e., All bachelors are unmarried men). Synthetic statements are those in which the predicate is not contained within the subject (i.e., All bachelors are unmarried men who wear green shirts). When we consider the examples, one can see to be a “bachelor” is to be “an unmarried man” and to be “an unmarried man” is to be a “bachelor.” One entails the other and to know the terms of one is to know and affirm the terms of the other. On the other hand, to affirm that all bachelors must wear green shirts is not by definition contained in the very concept of “bachelor” or “unmarried men.” There are several bachelors who wear different colored shirts while remaining unmarried.

Modern philosophy spent ample time trying to adjudicate these different types of concepts and propositional judgements. Immanuel Kant tried to go beyond these mere categories in order to affirm his notion of the synthetic a priori; namely, a form of knowledge that gives us knowledge about the world (synthetic) and at the same time does not require experience to confirm the knowledge claims (a priori). Kant claims there are synthetic a priori judgments and much of modern theological liberalism bases its theology upon this philosophical prolegomena.

Here is an example of Kant’s epistemology. Suppose someone confidently asserted, “All events have a cause.” Notice they did not say most or many events, but that all events have this property. However, on the basis of a collection of particular experiences we start to realize it is not true that all events have this property, but only some events. We bring this information to our experience of the world rather than deriving it from experience. This would be a form of a priori knowledge. Unlike analytic judgments, however, it does seem to give us true information about the world. Hence, Kant seems to suggest to his readers the notion of “cause” is not packed into or contained within the notion of “event,” as is the case with “unmarried” and “bachelor.” For the statement of universal causality is an example of synthetic knowledge. If Kant is correct in his assessment about synthetic a priori judgments, then there is a kind of knowledge that gives us more than we get from analyzing concepts and more than one obtains from collecting sense impressions. In order to account for how this operates, Immanuel Kant provides the Transcendental Method as the solution to the problem.

Unfortunately, time does not permit a full and elaborate explanation of Kant’s Transcendental Method, Categories of Understanding, and diatribe on metaphysical antinomies. We must be content and only highlight the fact that Kant’s entire method made a Copernican Revolution in the history of ideas. In his method, Kant argues that the mind no longer conforms unto reality, rather reality conform unto the mind. Reality is not something known in and of itself, but only as it appears unto the individual. Moreover, if the topic under investigation rises above the level of sense experience (i.e., metaphysics, the self, God, and divine revelation), we cannot know them directly. Whenever we attempt to “know” these types of illusive objects we result in unthinkable and irrational antinomies. We are left with a worldview in which religion is relegated within the bounds of mere reason. There is no known divine revelation, no special revelation, no natural theology, and ultimately, no true foundation for the Christian faith.

Let’s jump back into the question of the day: What Hath the Synthetic A Priori Got To Do With It? In the wake of Kant’s philosophical conclusions religion fundamentally changed. One could look to the likes of Schleiermacher, Hegel, Feuerbach, and many more to understand how modern theology was affected by Kantian philosophy. Post-Kantian theologians attempted to “redeem” Kant’s concept of the synthetic a priori and resulted is a non-cognitive, non-propositional religion based upon a sense of absolute dependence, and not upon any concept of divine revelation. Kant’s idealism resulted in the fabrications of Lessing’s ditch, Hegel’s appropriation of dialectical theology, Schleiermacher’s universal process of human beings reaching their religious consciousness, Ritschl’s denial of the traditional doctrines about Jesus, Von Harnack’s historical biblical criticism, Kierkegaard’s existentialism, and Barth’s neo-orthodoxy. In short, anyone who attempted to “redeem” Kant’s philosophical paradigm ended up eroding the essence of the Christian faith. Like it was discussed above: All truth is God’s truth if the thing affirmed is actually true. In this case, Kant’s theses were false, and the only way to not fall prey to his conclusions is to reject them.

Twentieth century theology is a tale of three forms of appropriating modernity and Kant’s epistemological shift. Theological liberals adopted it; Fundamentalists and Evangelicals rejected it; and Neo-orthodox theologians accommodated it. In the works of individuals such as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich we see the rise of neo-orthodox theology, the “New Hermeneutic”, the quests for the historical Jesus, heilsgeschichte, and ultimately secular theology. Many people hoped Barth’s neo-orthodoxy would help liberals move away from their liberalism. The unfortunate fact of the matter is Barth’s method actually caused more theological conservatives to embrace theological liberalism. In brief, in their attempt to “redeem” modernity and Kant’s method through either theological liberalism or neo-orthodoxy, once confessional Christians gave up the very nature of the once for all orthodox Christian faith given to us through the agency of special divine revelation, contained in cognitive propositional form, revealing the very mind of God and plan of salvation.

Let’s jump back to the question of the day, just one more time: What Hath the Synthetic A Priori Got To Do With It? Today there are many Christians claiming we need to “redeem” the various aspects of Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and the BLM movement. They recognize the movement rests modern philosophy and Kant’s subjectivity. In fact, the paradigm of knowledge rests upon Kant’s transcendental idealism, even though it goes much further by radically subjectivizing the categories like postmodernism, even to the point of making race and gender some type of cognitive faculty. We have seen this type of accommodation before in other arenas. These “Mr. Middle-Man” approaches to theology, while they seek to “Plunder the Egyptians for their gold”, never seem to actually accomplish in real space, time, and history that which they sought to do. The unfortunate fact is critical theory cannot be redeemed or reconciled with the Christian faith because it is antithetical to the Christian faith.

In conclusion, time does not permit me to prove the claim, “Critical Theory cannot be redeemed or reconciled with the Christian faith because it is antithetical to the Christian faith.” If someone would like more information to substantiate that claim, please consult the Statement on Social Justice, the Sovereign Nations videos on the “Trojan Horse” and their Conference on Social Justice. However, time does permit me to make the following statements.

  1. The history of ideas bears truth to the fact that not all ideas can be reconciled or redeemed by the Christian faith. There are some things that are not redeemable. Critical theory, CRT, Intersectionality, and the tenets of the BLM movement fit into this category. There is a real hell for people who cannot be redeemed. There ought to be a real hell for ideas that cannot be redeemed too.
  2. The history of ideas demonstrates the fact accommodation movements never achieve their high and lofty goals. Schleiermacher, Barth, Brunner, and the rest were never able to satisfy their cultural despisers of religion. Unfortunately, they ultimately gave up or modified their religion in a vain attempt to satisfy the cultural despisers. The same has proven true and will continue to prove true, with those attempts to accommodate critical theory with the Christian faith.
  3. Sometimes the best way to handle a false idea is to outright reject it. In the case of Kant’s paradigm of knowledge, we must recognize any attempt to embrace it resulted in a theology antithetical to orthodoxy. In a similar vein, I would argue Christians must outright reject any form of critical theory if they want to properly engage with it.
  4. Christians must not get caught up in appeasing the present-day cultural despisers of religion. History has demonstrated repeatedly that people tend to move in the direction of reconciling their religion towards the cultural despisers, rather than the despisers adopting the historic Christian faith.
  5. Just because there are some legitimate truths outside of the Christian faith reconcilable with orthodoxy, does not mean all ideas outside of the Christian faith can be reconciled with orthodoxy. There is a vast difference between the quest of Augustine and Aquinas and that of Schleiermacher and Barth. Similarly, there is a vast difference between the Scholastic Method and Reformed Humanist Renaissance and that which is taking place by those Christians who believe they can do the same with idealism, postmodernism, and critical theory.
  6. It is not a slippery slope to claim critical theory will lead to a denial of the Christian faith. One must remember this motto: A slippery slope is only a fallacy if one uses it fallaciously. Ideas have consequences. Just because you do not like the consequences of your synthesis, does not mean someone lacks critical thought or is committing a logical fallacy. For example, Harold Lindsell used to be charged with committing a slippery slope fallacy when he wrote The Battle for the Bible. History and sound reasoning proved that Lindsell was correct when he demonstrated that whenever a denomination or institution jettisons the inerrancy of the Bible their view of orthodoxy was jettisoned too. Similarly, history and sound reasoning will demonstrate again that mediating evangelical appropriations of critical theory will result in the jettisoning of any orthodox expression of the Christian faith. Critical theory has already destroyed secular society and many university religious study programs. Why do evangelicals (again) believe they are immune from false ideas? History seems to repeat this sad story over and over again.
  7. Churches cannot embrace a soft form of critical theory and remain immune from its devastating consequences. Evangelicals have not learned the lessons from history regarding their embrace of seeker sensitive models. The twentieth century is one long footnote explaining evangelical appropriations of seeker sensitive trends. Unfortunately, whether it was the embrace of Willow Creek, the Emergent Church, “Being Missional”, or any other trendy facet—each one resulted in an evangelical accommodation to culture, not the culture’s embrace of evangelicalism. The evangelical embrace of critical theory and CRT is another example of this trend.
  8. Finally, how ought evangelicals move forward? We must do exactly what our evangelical forefathers did: reject the dominate paradigm of our day and replace it with the Scriptural paradigm. The Reformers rejected the dominant paradigm of Roman Catholicism for sola Scriptura. The Puritans rejected the dominant paradigm during the English Reformation in favor of the regulative principle of faith. Edwards, Whitefield, and Spurgeon rejected the paradigm of modernity in favor of divine special revealtion. Hodge and Warfield rejected twentieth century appropriations of existentialism and neo-orthodoxy in favor of biblical inspiration. Schaeffer, Sproul, and Gerstner rejected the paradigm of Jack Rodgers and Fuller Seminary in favor of plenary and verbal inerrancy. In the same vein, evangelicals ought to reject the prevailing critical theory paradigm of our day and embrace the historic Christian faith found in the all sufficient Scriptures. We must reject the so-called plundering of the critical theory Egyptians, for in their treasures we do not find gold, but useless idols opposed to the Christian faith.

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