by Chris Barrett
Adventists have a proud heritage as people of The Book. Our doctrines were hammered out by long hours of study, discussion, and prayer, until our pioneers and early church leaders were confident ‘we had the truth.’
While many today would suggest these doctrines were based on a ‘proof text’ method of study and are flawed, the process and approach used is of great interest to us.
I have a fairly simplistic way of applying a priori and a posteriori to thinking:
- An a priori belief is something I have accepted as truth without seeking, questioning, or examining any evidence. (Whether it is or is not available)
- An a posteriori belief is one I have accepted because after careful examination of the most possible evidences it presents a compelling case based on the weight of that evidence and data.
In defending an a priori held position we select evidence that fits our view, while often blindly ignoring data that would cast doubt on our assumption.
In a posteriori testing a position, belief or theory we lay aside, as best we can, the presupposition that it is correct. Having done this we set out to gather as much data as possible to test its validity.
For our Adventist Pioneers, the Bible was accepted a priori as the authoritative source of material from which to form doctrines. This view reflected the culture of the day, wherein nearly everyone saw the world through Christian or Theistic eyes and for most, the Bible was granted an almost unquestioned authority.
It was a different matter when it came to studying out doctrines. Doctrines long held without question (a priori) in their previous faiths, were now exposed to a posteriori scrutiny. Instead of beginning with an a priori statement, to a large degree they began with a question, a possibility. They examined this in the light of Scripture, compared text with text, and passage with passage until the weight of evidence, as they saw it, compelled them to forge a new doctrine. True, the outcomes were certainly coloured by their overall way of seeing the world, but they did move forward and outside of previous thinking.
This kind of change was possible because they shifted from a mindset of defending a position to testing its validity.
What does this mean for us? We have a history of finding ‘truth’ by gathering data and evidence and following the weight of that evidence. This is essentially a posteriori. We accepted the authority of the Bible a priori because that was the dominant culture of the day. Not so our doctrines.
We today live in a culture and generation where the Bible is no longer taken as an authoritative source of evidence in a quest for truth and meaning. The debate has moved back a level. It is no longer over truth within the Bible, but whether the Bible should serve as an authority at all.
Adventists (and most Christians) believe a priori the Bible is the ultimate source of authority. If we wish to defend such a position, surely we must now demonstrate a posteriori that we have valid and defendable reasons for doing so. We were prepared to do this to form and defend doctrines. Why not for the Bible?
We must shift our thinking from defence of an a priori assumption to a willingness to test our position with honesty and humility. Can we regain our passion for searching out truth and apply it to the new challenges of our day and culture?
Perhaps the most powerful contender as the source of meaning and ‘truth’ is nature. What is, what we see, information from science, what we experience, and who we are. The force of this issue is increased by the implication that much of what nature ‘says’ appears to be in disagreement with what the Bible says. This is especially true in the area of origins, creation, and sin.
As a Church with a history of defining truth a posteriori, how are we going to respond to this shift? Are we going to have the same openness that our pioneers had and examine this new challenge a posteriori? Or are we going to cling to our a priori assumption? Such a position was fine when it was the accepted culture, but is this enough now? Hardly.
So far the indications from leadership suggest we are going to hunker down with our a priori presupposition that the Bible (and our interpretation of it) is and always will be the final authority in these questions.
This time the dynamics have changed. Our pioneers were moving out of churches and forging an identity, seeking truth, growing and changing. Change is easy when you are on the front foot. This time we are a Church, we have ‘the truth’, and growth and change will come at a cost. We are now on the back foot. A position from which we are far more likely to defend a priori. Polemic, not pragmatism.
What would the outcome be if we did demand that the Bible's right to authority be put to a posteriori scrutiny? Indications are it would be demonstrated as an indefensible position. What would this do organisationally and theologically?
On the other hand, what will be the cost if we do not face whatever the outcomes of scrutiny are? An entrenched Young Earth Creationist position which risks becoming irrelevant to increasing numbers of people?
Would it not be more honourable to a posteriori examine our sources of truth and move with the weight of evidence? If this means allowing nature to be an ultimate authority in meaning, then the sooner we build an apologetic for God and faith from that position the more relevant Christianity may be able to remain.
I am going to suggest that this decision may be forced upon us sooner than later. Take a look at this illustration in how technology changes as an example:
WIRED editor, Chris Anderson talks about the four key shifts that occur with most new technologies. First, it comes down to a price where everyday people can afford it. Then it reaches a critical mass in everyday use, and quickly begins to replace existing technology. Finally, it becomes close to free because so many people are using it.
In this example, take technology as an illustration of how people see life and the dominant mindset they are exposed to. First, few people are aware of it, then it reaches a critical mass where everybody knows about it. (Think today’s global village with the Internet and access to a growing wealth of information about the age of earth, life, and evolution). Finally, it becomes so common the thinking of every person is shaped by it.
Is this how it will be with nature, evolution, the origins of man and the meaning of life?
If so, will Seventh-day Adventists hunker down oblivious to, or worse, denying the shift in thinking around them? Or will we examine the evidence as to the validity of granting the Bible final authority, and if necessary, build an apologetic for faith on the new paradigm before it's too late?
One could almost suspect the longer we, or Christians at large for that matter, hunker down and refuse this challenge, the more credibility we will give to atheism and the like. We risk appearing out of touch with reality, and failing to offer a compelling alternative apologetic for faith.
Can we a posteriori hammer out a new apologetic within the framework of this paradigm shift?
I submit we must. I also submit we must do this from understanding what IS, rather than from what is not (God of gaps), or from a Book who's previously granted authority will prove indefensible.