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Critical Realism

Critical Realism

So I was asked on Friday by one Mr. Tim Becker what exactly critical realism is and well, I fumbled, because its hard to explain how critical realism moves beyond the foundationalism that has caused the liberal/conservative divide.  While I fumbled along, my dear friend, Mr. Mall Bell came through with a short sentence that I thought was good.

“Critical Realism is an approach to knowing in which the “object” of inquiry dictates the hermeneutical approach”.

Okay, breaking this one down… Basically, critical realism can be applied to anything, not just theology.  I put “object” in quotes only because this is object understood in the most general sense, whether you’re trying to learn about rocks, toads, a human being, or a social situation.  “Hermeneutical approach” basically boils down to the way in which you learn about the object is dictated by the object itself.  Put a different way, the object determines how you learn about it.  

So for example, if you wanted to learn about toads you would adopt an approach to learning about toads that is appropriate to a toad.  You would not learn about toads and a person in the same way, it simply wouldn’t work.

The other element of critical realism that is essential is that all presuppositions are on the table and must be disregarded if something that is discovered in the process of inquiry challenges a presupposition.  Critical realism does not in way, as some critics say, deny presuppositions.  No, everyone approaches everything with presuppositions, but they are subject to change if the results of the inquiry challenge them.

For example, in doing a science experiment I make a hypothesis, for example x = a * 2b.  Then, my data shows that the relationship is actually x = a * 3b I, in a critical realist model say, “okay, my hypothesis needs to be changed”.  

In biblical scholarship this has become a major problem, because people have adopted a foundationalist approach that say, “If scripture challenges my presuppositions then it must be wrong (liberal), or I’ve interpreted it wrong (conservative)”.  So… those who advocate a TULIP approach to theology read something like “… God our Savior who desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4) and basically ignores that verse because it contradicts their understanding of limited atonement and unconditional election.  On the other end, the more liberal school has come across passages such as miracles and disregarded them as being impossible because it breaks their foundationalist presupposition of a naturalistic worldview.  The odd thing is that although conservative and liberals both passionately disagree with one another, they disagree for the same reasons: commitments to a priori philosophical assumptions.

Part of this actually comes from a foundationalist approach to the bible itself.  The conservatives will argue that scripture is “innerant in the originals.”  It’s a great hypothesis because it can’t be tested – one has to place their faith in it.  The problem is, we’re never called to put our faith and trust in the bible, we’re called to place our faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  The liberal approach says that the bible is a bunch of stories written by men (all of which is true) that can influence and shape our thinking.  Yet in both cases the two camps have made a priori decisions about the metaphysics of scripture, rather than letting scripture shape the metaphysics.  I refuse to say that scripture is inerrant, infallible, etc.  Paul says scripture is “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16).  But even in what I just did I did harm to the text, why?  I ripped it out of context.  Context helps shape the hermeneutical lens, so by simply proof texting that I’ve opened myself up to shaping the text to say exactly what I want it to say for my purposes.  While there is no way to make sure my interpretations are exactly right there are principles that can aid us.  My philosophical assumption is that scripture’s authority is derived entirely from that which it bears witness to do: God revealed.  Until I find a text that challenges that assumption I can go with it, but when it becomes challenged I have to allow the totality of scripture to reshape my assumptions.  

What critical realism does is force us to do our theological reflections beyond the realm of scripture.  In other words a simple proof text of “well Paul says it’s a sin!” doesn’t do it, because Paul says a lot of things are wrong that we still do. The other thing that critical realism does it makes things messy.  Critical realism refuses to let things be reduced down to a five point system that governs our interpretation of scripture.  Critical realism forces us to question the text and then be questioned by the text and then the cycle begins again.      

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. November 6, 2005 at 9:35 am

    i have to confess. even though “critical realism” sounds like a long, excessively smart, and ridiculously snotty word, i think the ideas it stands for might actually be interesting

  2. November 7, 2005 at 11:06 pm

    Brian what else have you read on this. I am doing a paper for Dr. Humprhiey on how critical realism can influence the in the historical Jesus debate, particularly NT Wright. Any suggestions?

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