Inspiration and Humanism

Inspiration and Humanism

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Published:
May 16, 2022

During the 2021 Annual Council meetings, General Conference President Ted Wilson tweeted the following excerpts from his Sabbath morning sermon:

The onslaught of humanism in culture today has nearly obliterated the understanding that supernatural inspiration is overwhelmingly more powerful than any humanistic philosophy.

Teach people to value the power of God and His Word in guiding us in all things and to reject humanism completely. Note Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:8-9. My fellow leaders, fight against humanism and lift up heavenly inspiration according to His Word!

The concern that is central to his opposition to “humanistic philosophy” is that an anthropocentric approach to scriptural interpretation undermines belief in divine revelation. For conservative Adventists, objective moral truths can only be known through supernatural revelation, the sinful condition of humanity making it impossible to have an intuitive notion of God’s will. In Wilson’s view, any method of scriptural interpretation that rests on the assumption that the Bible is a product of human editorial activity denies the reality of revelation and the sinful nature of humanity. It is because divine revelation is capable of overcoming the limitations of human sinfulness that, he argues, it is “more powerful than any humanistic philosophy.”

However, I disagree that believing in the necessity of a subjective reception of the truth is incompatible with believing in objective truth. In his works, the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard demonstrated that the objectivity of truth can be affirmed while appreciating its subjective side. Kierkegaard is known for his statement that “truth is subjectivity,” which appears in his book Concluding Unscientific Postscript. He begins the chapter in which he explores this idea by saying,

When the question of truth is raised in an objective manner, reflection is directed objectively to the truth, as an object to which the knower is related. Reflection is not focused upon the relationship, however, but upon the question of whether it is the truth to which the knower is related. If only the object to which he is related is the truth, the subject is accounted to be in the truth. When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual’s relationship: if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth, even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true.1

That is, when one considers truth as an objective phenomenon, they are concerned with the content of a proposition: whether the proposition is true, regardless of whether the person necessarily believes or acts on it. By contrast, when one considers truth as a subjective phenomenon, they are concerned primarily with the extent to which a proposition is believed or acted upon, not whether the proposition is objectively true. Later in this chapter, Kierkegaard discusses how the subjective phenomenon of truth ought to be understood:

When subjectivity is the truth, the conceptual determination of the truth must include an expression for the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of the fork in the road where the way swings off; this expression will also indicate the tension of the subjective inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual. At the point where the way swings off (and where this is cannot be specified objectively, since it is a matter of subjectivity), there objective knowledge is placed in abeyance. Thus the subject merely has, objectively, the uncertainty; but it is this which precisely increases the tension of that infinite passion which constitutes his inwardness. The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite.2

Kierkegaard offers an example of an “objective uncertainty”:

I contemplate nature in the hope of finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety. The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty. But it is for this very reason that the inwardness becomes as intense as it is, for it embraces this objective uncertainty with the entire passion of the infinite. In the case of a mathematical proposition the objectivity is given, but for this reason the truth of such a proposition is also an indifferent truth.3

Kierkegaard and the Subjectivity of Truth

In the 1960s, at the height of popular interest in existentialism—of which Kierkegaard is sometimes considered the founding father—Adventist theologians were alarmed by the suggestion that “truth is subjectivity.” In October 1967, the Biblical Research Committee compiled a report on existentialism containing four articles responding to the philosophical movement. Although some contributors to the report were more sympathetic to theological existentialism, the article that was most widely distributed was Edward Heppenstall’s “Dangers of Existentialism,” which was published as a two-part series in the October and November 1968 editions of Ministry.

In Heppenstall’s view, Kierkegaard’s definition of truth as the passionate appropriation of an objective uncertainty amounts to the claim that “Truth depends for its validity upon man.” He argues that if the objective truth of doctrine is considered irrelevant to subjectivity, then sinful man is left “to grope around within himself for the norm or the experience of truth.” By contrast, according to Heppenstall, traditional Christianity maintains that “belief on a knowledge basis is essential to and prior to personal involvement in truth. It can be depended upon regardless of man’s participation in it.” This knowledge is found in “the movement of God towards man through the apostles and prophets,” that is, supernatural revelation: “The traditional Christian position states that belief in the Bible as the revealed Word of God is . . . an objective knowledge of truth given by God existing in and of itself.” Heppenstall argues that by accepting the subjectivist position, Kierkegaard effectively “repudiates the authority of any body of beliefs, or the fixity of the eternal truths of scripture.” This leaves “no universal truth for all man,” leading to the likelihood “that man will attach himself to that which is false.”4

In his polemic against existentialism, Heppenstall does a severe disservice to Kierkegaard’s thought. In an essay discussing Kierkegaard’s epistemology, Stephen Evans notes that the opening paragraph of the chapter on truth as subjectivity “assumes that there is such a thing as objective propositional truth.” In fact, the issue at stake is not whether there is such a thing as objective truth. Rather, Kierkegaard is concerned with the nature of the individual’s relationship to the truth. The opening paragraph “assumes that it is possible for an individual to believe what is not (objectively) true even if the individual herself is in some sense in the truth, just as it assumes that an individual can believe what is objectively true while being personally in untruth.” This is especially the case for religious truth, which Kierkegaard considers “essential” to human existence. He emphasizes that the passionate, subjective appropriation of religious truth is “the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” Evans explains, “Existence . . . involves the actualization of conceived possibilities.” Moral truths do not become existential realities—truths in any actual sense—unless they are actualized by one’s choices. As Evans formulates Kierkegaard’s question: “Does a person live truly if and only if that person has the right beliefs, that is, objectively moral and religious beliefs? Or is it rather the case that a person can have objectively true beliefs about morality and human life and still live falsely?”5

To Kierkegaard, it is obvious that the latter option is correct since many Christians who claim to know the truth do not behave accordingly. Of course, this is not to say that he believed one’s objective moral beliefs were unimportant: “In the end, his position is not that what a person believes is unimportant but that how a person believes is crucially important.” Kierkegaard thought that “God has providentially arranged that moral and religious insight is gained only through moral and religious striving,” so that if a person is subjectively in the truth while not knowing (or being uncertain of) the objective truth, God would graciously reveal the objective truth to them.6 This is consistent with the view of the apostle Paul, who stated, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves” (Romans 2:13–14).

Heppenstall’s insinuation that Kierkegaard believed there must be “no universal truth for all men” is simply wrong. As Peter Vardy states, “Many commentators on Kierkegaard have taken the phrase ‘truth is subjectivity’ to mean that if an individual wholly and passionately embraces and lives by a particular idea, then this idea will be true for him or her. They assume that Kierkegaard is dismissing the idea of objective truth and making the final determinant of truth a particular individual’s subjective state. . . . This, however, is a travesty of Kierkegaard’s position.” While Heppenstall suggests that Kierkegaard’s subjectivism will lead people to attach themselves to beliefs that are false, this is precisely what Kierkegaard was concerned with avoiding. “Kierkegaard’s point is that if truth is simply determined by what someone is personally passionate about (i.e. a ‘merely subjective determination of the truth’) then there is no way of distinguishing someone who is effectively mad or deluded (like Don Quixote) from someone who has faith.”7

Heppenstall, like most conservative Adventists, insists that Christians must speak with the voice of certainty if they intend to convert others. They can do this because, in his view, there is no “objective uncertainty” in the truth contained in scripture. Any uncertainty that exists on the part of the Christian can be overcome by accepting a priori that scripture contains the truth. However, it is precisely this naïve insistence that scripture ought to be treated as though it contains no objective uncertainties that Kierkegaard regards as quixotic. As Vardy states, Kierkegaard’s “reference to ‘objective uncertainty’ is to the fact that God’s existence cannot be proved nor can Jesus’ status as God be justified. Both are matters of faith. Faith means staking one’s life on something, with total passion, knowing that there is no proof and it is always possible one could be wrong. Faith necessarily involves risk.”8 Heppenstall responds that any doubts about God’s existence can be dispelled by accepting the objective certainty of truth as contained in Scripture. But if a person doubts the existence of God, how can they be expected to believe that the Scripture is true simply because it is given by God, whose existence they doubt?

Kierkegaard argues that objective knowledge of God is impossible, criticizing two competing definitions of objective truth. One is the “idealistic” view, in which truth is defined as “the agreement of being with thinking.” Kierkegaard dismisses this view as “tautological, for . . . the ‘being’ that is the object of thought is not actual being but being as thought. Hence the agreement between being and thought in this case is merely the agreement of thinking with thinking.” The alternative to the idealistic definition of truth is the “empirical” view, in which truth is defined as “the agreement of thinking with being.” In this view, “truth . . . becomes an ideal that can never be fully realized. This is so because both the activity that is being represented and the knower are ‘unfinished’ and in process.” As Evans notes, Kierkegaard’s claim that it is impossible for any ideal to “be finally and fully actualized” in the process of empirical inquiry “is not antirealistic. Rather, it rests on what Hilary Putnam has termed the defining tenet of realism, the radically nonepistemic character of truth. It is just because reality is ultimately independent of human minds that human attempts to know that reality must always be approximations.”9 This is especially true concerning our knowledge of God. We cannot grasp God objectively because any conception of him that we develop can only be approximate. Consequently, faith as the subjective appropriation of objective uncertainty is necessary for a relationship with God.

For Kierkegaard, if faith is possible, it cannot consist of simply subscribing to a list of doctrinal beliefs. Faith must be a lived experience. If a person lives as though God exists and Jesus is the Christ, this does not prove that these propositions are objectively true, but it does demonstrate their subjective truth in the believer’s life.10 Although it is possible to present objective arguments to an unbeliever, those arguments will not ensure their conversion because objective uncertainties will remain. Simply affirming the 28 Fundamental Beliefs does not amount to conversion; conversion occurs when a person decides to place their faith in God despite the objective uncertainties.

Apologetics and Hermeneutics

By contrasting supernatural inspiration with humanism, Ted Wilson is discrediting methods of biblical interpretation that acknowledge that Scripture is the product of a human process of development. Most concerning to Wilson and his colleagues are critical hermeneutical methods such as historical criticism and reader-response criticism. In his presentation for the 2021 Annual Council, Artur Stele, GC vice president, argued against historical criticism, stating, “Although the Bible is culturally and historically constituted, it is not culturally or historically conditioned.” Likewise, he condemned what he called “postmodern approaches” or “new hermeneutics,” which he characterized as changing the focus of theological attention “from the actual Biblical text, from the intended meaning by the author of the text, to the reader.” Because “the reader is no longer looking to understand what the author intended to say” but rather is seeking meaning “in the moment of an encounter between the reader and the text,” Stele argues that these methods result in “self-centeredness” rather than “God centeredness.” Stele also condemned “extreme approaches to structuralism,” in which “the actual meaning [of a text] is not seen on the ‘surface level’” and therefore requires specialists to interpret it.11

Stele’s argument against the “new hermeneutics” is the same as Heppenstall’s argument against existentialism in the 1967 BRC report. Heppenstall suggested that if “the rational consistency of Biblical content as doctrine is not essential in order to know the truth,” then it cannot be stated that truth is “objectively given in the Bible.”12 But this argument is a non sequitur: simply because there might be rational inconsistencies in the Bible does not mean that it contains no objective truth. Likewise, simply because the Bible is historically conditioned, as historical-critical methods assume, does not mean that its truths are conditional or irrelevant for later periods. Heppenstall directed his arguments against existentialist theologians like Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, who believed that although the Bible contains objective truth, it is the task of theology to extract the truth from its historically-conditioned mythical symbolism. I agree with these theologians that “demythologization” is necessary for understanding the kerygmatic content of the Bible.13 Moreover, I believe demythologization is necessary if the apologetic purpose of theology is to be fulfilled—that is, if the kergyma is to be made intelligible to people in the present age. Fundamentalists disagree with both of these points. They deny that the Bible contains any mythical content and insist that the events it describes literally happened and were accurately recorded by its authors. They also deny that the Bible needs to be made intelligible to unbelievers, asserting that it can be universally understood by people in all cultural and historical situations.

According to Heppenstall, unless there are no objective uncertainties in what the Bible claims to be true, there can be no way to convert unbelievers. Instead, apologists must project absolute certainty about the truth of Scripture if they expect others to take them seriously. In my view, this position essentially relies on presuppositional apologetics, which is based on the epistemological claim that every person brings to their understanding of the world a set of intrinsic and immutable presuppositions on which the rest of their knowledge is constructed. For a person to believe in Christianity, they must first carry the presupposition that the Bible is valid, or at least they must be able to conclude that the Bible is valid based on deeper presuppositions that are inherent to their worldview. Heppenstall’s claim resembles presuppositional apologetics in that for him, the objective certainty concerning the validity of Scripture must be accepted a priori—that is, as a presupposition—if one is to become a Christian.

Presuppositional apologetics originated in Calvinism as an attempt to explain why those who are predestined to be saved ultimately accept the Bible as true, while those who are predestined to be damned do not. If a person is predestined to be saved or lost, it must be because God gave or withheld the necessary presuppositions needed to accept the Bible as true. This belief is incompatible with Adventism, which does not accept the doctrines of total depravity, limited grace, and unconditional election. Nevertheless, conservative Adventists promote a version of presuppositional apologetics that is arguably less internally consistent than the Calvinist version. They maintain that even if a person has not yet concluded that the Bible is true, they must have the underlying set of presuppositions necessary to arrive at that conclusion. If this is the case, then converting others is simply a matter of convincing them using rational arguments that their presuppositions lead to the inevitable conclusion that the Scriptures contain the objective truth. If a person has doubts, it is not because their presuppositions prevent them from arriving at the right conclusions but either because their reason has failed them (due to their sinful nature) or because Satan is tempting them to reject the truth. At best, those who have doubts are malfunctioning automatons; at worst, they are deliberately and nefariously choosing to ignore the evidence before them.

The conservative Adventist insistence on the absolute objective certainty of the Bible reduces faith to a matter of accepting obvious logical conclusions. Throughout his writings, Kierkegaard sharply criticizes this reduction of faith to mere intellectual assent. In discussing Abraham’s faith in his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard argues that by obeying God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham engaged in a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” in which the particularity of his conviction that God had commanded him to sacrifice Isaac took precedence over the ethical norms that applied universally to his people, which would likely have prohibited the slaughter of one’s heir.14 In Kierkegaard’s view, faith loses its meaning if it is reduced to mere belief. There are many reasons people might act as though they believe that are not the result of faith—for example, to appease their religious parents. Insofar as they are acting without genuine faith, they are confined to the ethical sphere of social norms. For faith to have any meaning, it must have the connotation of being a solitary pursuit, undertaken apart from—even, at times, in opposition to—the ethical norms of one’s culture.

Theology and the Adventist Identity Crisis

Hebrews 11:1 states that faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” This does not simply mean that faith consists of the conviction that God is real even though he cannot be seen. More importantly, it means that faith consists of conviction despite not having empirical evidence to support that conviction. Faith is therefore entirely subjective; it does not rely on objective certainty. If this is the case, then a theology that makes room for faith should not be preoccupied with establishing the objective certainty of Scripture, which is both impossible and irrelevant to faith. Instead, it must be preoccupied with the subjective appropriation of the truths of Scripture, despite their uncertainty. As Tillich states,

A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation. Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.15

Tillich calls these two poles “kerygmatic theology” and “apologetic theology,” respectively. In his view, fundamentalism falls exclusively into the category of kerygmatic theology:

When fundamentalism is combined with an antitheological bias, as it is, for instance, in its biblicistic-evangelical form, the theological truth of yesterday is defended as an unchangeable message against the theological truth of today and tomorrow. Fundamentalism fails to make contact with the present situation, not because it speaks from beyond every situation, but because it speaks from a situation of the past. It elevates something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity.16

This is precisely the predicament of Adventism, which has tethered its identity to a historical moment located in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and therefore fails to speak with eternal validity. Although Tillich acknowledges that apologetic theology can lose its way “if it is not based on the kerygma as the substance and criterion of each of its statements,” he affirms that kerygmatic theology alone cannot “fulfil the aim of the theological function of the church”:

Even kerygmatic theology must use the conceptual tools of its period. It cannot simply repeat biblical passages. Even when it does, it cannot escape the conceptual situation of the different biblical writers. Since language is the basic and all-pervasive expression of every situation, theology cannot escape the problem of the “situation.” Kerygmatic theology must give up its exclusive transcendence and take seriously the attempt of apologetic theology to answer the questions put before it by the contemporary situation.17

The failure of conservative Adventists to address the conceptual situation of the Bible’s authors is the central flaw of fundamentalist theology and the underlying cause of the current identity crisis that Adventism faces. Already by forswearing “new hermeneutical” methods, Adventist leaders have eliminated the possibility of developing a valuable apologetic theology for the present age; and this situation is worsened when they cannot even develop a successful kerygmatic theology because they have rejected historical-critical methods, which would lead to a better understanding of the New Testament kerygma in its original historical context. As Tillich argues,

Theologians need not be afraid of any historical conjecture, for revealed truth lies in a dimension where it can neither be confirmed nor negated by historiography. Therefore, theologians should not prefer some results of historical research to others on theological grounds, and they should not resist results which finally have to be accepted if scientific honesty is not to be destroyed, even if they seem to undermine the knowledge of revelation. Historical investigations should neither comfort nor worry theologians. Knowledge of revelation, although it is mediated primarily through historical events, does not imply factual assertions, and it is therefore not exposed to critical analysis by historical research. Its truth is to be judged by criteria which lie in the dimension of revelatory knowledge.18

It is the task of Adventist theology, given its distinctive emphasis on revelatory knowledge, to articulate what these criteria ought to be. It is not the task of Adventist theology to pretend that it has knowledge in areas of history and science that are irrelevant to explicating the kerygmatic message for the contemporary age.

The fact that church leaders believe that the objective truth of the kerygma is incompatible with the humanistic outlook implied in acknowledging that truth is subjectivity seems to reflect an underlying suspicion that God is not wholly concerned with respecting human autonomy or dignity. This is alarming. If church leaders believe that defending what they believe to be God’s will is more important than respecting human dignity, any authoritarian actions taken under the guise of protecting the truth, such as the suppression of dissenting views, become justified, at least in an ecclesiastical context.19 This authoritarian attitude has been demonstrated in the actions of the General Conference leadership in the years following the 2015 GC Session, as compliance committees and formal censures have been used to discourage those who hold dissenting views on issues like women’s ordination.

God’s will is not incompatible with human autonomy and dignity. Not only did God create people to exercise their free will but the actions he prohibits are intended to protect human dignity, not to disparage it. Insofar as uncertainty persists concerning the original meaning, contemporary application, or subjective appropriation of a biblical passage, people are permitted to act according to their consciences. If this is what the General Conference leaders count as “humanism,” then Christianity is a humanistic religion, and church leaders ought to reconsider whether their fundamentalist vision for Adventism is compatible with Christian faith.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript; in Robert Bretall (ed.), A Kierkegaard Anthology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), 210–11.

[2] Kierkegaard, 214.

[3] Kierkegaard, 214–15.

[4] Edward Heppenstall, “Dangers of Existentialism (Part 1),” Ministry (October 1968), https://cdn.ministrymagazine.org/issues/1968/issues/MIN1968-10.pdf; and Edward Heppenstall, “Dangers of Existentialism (Concluded),” Ministry (November 1968), https://cdn.ministrymagazine.org/issues/1968/issues/MIN1968-11.pdf.

[5] C. Stephen Evans, “Realism and antirealism in Postscript”; in Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 171–2.

[6] Evans, 173.

[7] Peter Vardy, An Introduction to Kierkegaard (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 28–9.

[8] Vardy, 32.

[9] Evans, 168–9; quoting Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (tr. Hannay), 189–90.

[10] Vardy, 31.

[11] Artur Stele, “The Word of God,” presentation at the 2021 Annual Council (October 2021), https://executivecommittee.adventist.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/110.-AC21-Artur-Stele-The-Word-of-God.pdf (edited for capitalization).

[12] Heppenstall (1968).

[13] Tillich clarifies the controversial term “demythologization” by stating that it should not be interpreted to “mean the removal of myth as a vehicle of religious expression and the substitution of science and morals.” Rather, it should be interpreted to “mean the fight against the literalistic distortion of symbols and myths.” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology [volume 2] [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957], 152.) For Tillich, because God transcends the limitations of human language, anything that we can say about God is only mythical or symbolic in nature. For this reason, “The language of faith is the language of symbols.” (Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith [New York: Harper, 1957 (2001)], 51.)

[14] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling; in Bretall, 129–31.

[15] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 1) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 3.

[16] Tillich (vol. 1), 3.

[17] Tillich (vol. 1), 7.

[18] Tillich (vol. 1), 130.

[19] In the broader evangelical movement, the suppression of dissenting views is often considered justified in a political context as well.

 


William C. DeMary is a software engineer living in Texas.

Title image: unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard (c. 1840), public domain / Screenshot from Ted Wilson’s 2021 Annual Council sermon.

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