Public Reason Liberalism and Kuyperian Epistemology

Public Reason Liberalism and Kuyperian Epistemology

There’s a debate going on over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians about the reasonableness of Christianity, whether or not this means it needs to be epistemically justified, and what that means for its place in setting public policy.

As it turns out, the attackers in the comments and responses make some very justified points. For example, the claim that the most that can be epistemically justified is a sort of watered-down deism. Natural reason can lead to a general knowledge of a transcendent God (I find Roderick Long’s argument in this direction plausible), but knowledge of God’s immanence – in particular, knowledge of Christ – is brought about only by divine intervention. As Jesus said (John 6:44), “No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him.”

Abraham Kuyper was a Dutch theologian, philosopher, and political leader who, probably by virtue of this unique combination of offices, fleshed out the epistemological implications of verses like this the most. In particular, in the lecture Calvinism and Science, he talks about the humanly unbridgeable epistemological divide between natural knowledge and divine revelation – that is, between common grace and saving grace.

The core soteriological message of the Bible is that man is unable to achieve saving knowledge of God on his own. Quite simply, the human condition according to the Bible is not only total moral depravity, but epistemological darkness as regards the things of God.

Kuyper’s point might have saved some effort on the part of old philosophers who tried to prove the existence of God by natural reasoning. Christianity is a set of propositions, yes, but it is also at its core experiential. As evangelical preachers stress over and over, saving faith must treasure God, not merely assent to his existence. This treasuring, by which the will is changed, is the sole fruit of the Holy Spirit: “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Sola Fide is rooted in Sola Gratia.

This sort of epistemology, of course, cannot be generalized to all people. From the standpoint of natural reason, it is not “epistemically justified”. But if the human condition is as the Bible claims – if natural reason is necessarily insufficient here – it does not need to be epistemically justified to be true.

In my own opinion, the Public Reason project of drawing a line between “reasonable” and “unreasonable” (as opposed to true and false) is ultimately futile. But whatever verdict public reason liberals may decide to pass on Christianity, its revelatory epistemology means that it and public policy constitute (you might say) non-overlapping magisteria. What other goal might a uniquely Christian public policy have than to “nudge” people toward salvation, which indeed seems to be implicit in a lot of evangelical political action? But the necessity of divine election and inbreaking means that this goal is impossible to achieve by political action. If the elect were chosen, as Paul claims, “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:3), public policy will be totally impotent to achieve its goals. Christian values such as might be instantiated in public policy don’t mean anything to the unregenerate, and most certainly do not help them on the path to salvation.


CalvinismEpistemologyPhilosophyAbraham KuyperRoderick Long


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  • 1

    Matt Cavedon

    Oct 20, 2013 at 15:36 | Reply

    “What other goal might a uniquely Christian public policy have than to ‘nudge’ people toward salvation[?]… Christian values such as might be instantiated in public policy don’t mean anything to the unregenerate, and most certainly do not help them on the path to salvation.”

    Joseph’s prime ministry in Egypt meant plenty to the people who didn’t starve. The uniquely Christian approaches to public policy of William Wilberforce and MLK may or may not have nudged people toward salvation, but they did remove gross stains of sin from continuing to breed more sin and from harming people. Much the same could be said of the public Christians who shuttered the colisseums and banned the exposure of infants. Or of the Christian Democrats who resisted the nightmares of the twentieth century, then sought to build a just order. Surely their efforts were appreciated even by the non-churched. With hope, the Christian wings of the pro-life and anti-trafficking movements will be similarly appreciated in the near future.

    Or does God tell us to pray for the good of Babylon but not tell Emperor why we can interpret his dreams?

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Oct 20, 2013 at 15:47

      I wouldn’t call that a uniquely Christian public policy. One’s faith might inform it, but you can formulate it in such a way that it makes sense to the unregenerate. And for it to have any relevance in a pluralistic society, you have to formulate it that way.

      So yes, pray and work for the good of Babylon as you are called, in whatever way your conscience approves. Witness to King Agrippa as a human, and use him as a king to further the peace of the city so far as you’re able. But don’t use him to augment your witness to the city. The goals of peace (common grace) and evangelism (saving grace) have to remain disjunct in practice, so far as political power is concerned.

    • 1.2

      Matt Cavedon

      Oct 20, 2013 at 15:58

      People were smart enough to hear Christian-formulated policy arguments in the contexts above. And the Left is perfectly comfortable hearing it still on peace, immigration, poverty, environmentalism, and gun control. The reality of pluralism doesn’t require us to arrest our honest reasons in favor of the lowest common denominators. Even if, sure, we shouldn’t use the state to make people go to church or profess the Trinity, because those are matters of conscience and inner conversion not subject to state jurisdiction.

      As for the state augmenting witness through more symbolic or expressive means, I’m not so sure. It’s contextual. If the state is hypocritical and warlike, then yeah, it shouldn’t pretend to be Christian. But for Malta to have the cross on its flag, and the Hungarians to constitutionally recognize Christianity as a source of values, why not? Better than the state refusing to recognize any authority higher than the will of its rulers or the people who elect them. At least then you can try to hold it accountable to truth, and it will not collect all the credit for whatever good it does.

      All authority in fact does come from God. A little genuine gratitude can be a good thing.

    • 1.3

      Cameron Harwick

      Oct 20, 2013 at 16:26

      People were smart enough to hear Christian-formulated policy arguments because in all the cases you mentioned it was easy enough for them to translate into natural reason. We don’t have to be silent about why we believe something, but public policy is about convincing others. If we want to actually work for common good, tying it to our revealed priors is counterproductive (meaning as well that this goal is less important than evangelism).

      For issues where the conclusion actually depends on our priors, there’s no reason to expect anyone else to accept them without first being saved, and there’s no reason to politicize it. In such cases, if there’s a Christian majority, it doesn’t do the unregenerate minority any good to impose the conclusion upon them (i.e. it won’t be genuine gratitude). And if there’s not, they won’t understand what on earth we’re talking about. (I would point to the gay marriage debate as an example of this)

      And finally: do you really have faith that any state presiding over unregenerate people will remain free of hypocrisy and war so that it would be a good idea for it to pretend to be Christian?

    • 1.4

      Matt Cavedon

      Oct 20, 2013 at 16:45

      I’ll sidestep the “regenerate”language because I’m not sure how I’d have to qualify it theologically. Suffice to say that a state without a majority Christian population is unlikely to attempt to be publicly Christian, and even less likely to succeed in any kind of Christian manner.

      Looking around, being Christian doesn’t seem to do much good, either, this side of the separation of wheat from tares. So perhaps, then, it’s just that I’d like to be able to call the state a lousy hypocrite with sound ideals than to have it profess no transcendent values at all. And perhaps I do think that the values the state professes actually do have some bearing on the policies it enacts, and that the policies it enacts actually do have some impact on culture and choices, such that it all makes some real difference after all. That they can support peace and the pursuit of the common good, and that this is a good thing for a state to do even if it can’t take the place of holy grace.

    • 1.5

      Cameron Harwick

      Oct 20, 2013 at 16:53

      “So perhaps, then, it’s just that I’d like to be able to call the state a lousy hypocrite with sound ideals than to have it profess no transcendent values at all.”

      This, I suppose, is where we differ. It seems to me that the dishonor done to the name of Christ by the former situation outweighs any good that might be done, especially considering that, by the grace of God, that common grace is attainable without reference to transcendent values.

    • 1.6

      Matt Cavedon

      Oct 20, 2013 at 16:54

      Heh. We may as well all give up the name of Christ, then ;)

    • 1.7

      Cameron Harwick

      Oct 20, 2013 at 16:58

      Hah, a fair point. The difference being, that the Holy Spirit actually indwells us as believers. The state as an institution has no such benefit. We as individuals (or as a Church, if you like) have been called as ambassadors of Christ; the state has not.

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