Assumptions, Data, And Their Relationship (Brief)
In a discussion from February to March, an idea was proposed. The discussion was not apologetic in nature. Or at least it did not have to do with defending the faith against unbelievers; however, it may have been apologetic in the sense of a Christian defending an interpretation. What was this idea? It is simple. The idea is that if one approaches the text of Scripture without presuppositions, then he will be able to discern the correct meaning. The idea can be expressed with many different words. The word “presupposition” is not necessary; one could substitute “assumption,” “preconception,” “a-priori,” etc.
The purpose of this post is to begin exploring a few questions. What are presuppositions? Is it even possible to examine the “data” without them? What would “presupposition-less” data look like? In short, this post will take this stance. Presuppositions are unavoidable; data is impossible to examine without presuppositions; and “neutral/brute” data is meaningless. The following will argue for these points.
Dictionary.com gives the following meaning to the word, “to suppose or assume beforehand; take for granted in advance.” This can certainly take many forms. For illustration purposes, “language” will be explored.
“Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Buraysheet, Vuyaal.”
Now, without any preconceptions or a-priori commitments to language, give the meaning. The illustration would probably be better if the actual letters themselves were used, because of their foreignness. Again, you need to give the meaning of the above without any preconceptions or a-priori commitments to language. What is the meaning? After all, we always and without any exception want all of our study to be based off of an inductive study; we don’t want to impose our presuppositions on the data. (so the saying goes)
Most likely, those who have not had some exposure to language in the Middle East, an education in the language itself, or some exposure to a social setting where the language is spoken will find the quoted linguistic symbols above to be meaningless. This is simply because that person will not have the basics of Grammar, vocabulary, and symbol recognition (attaching pronunciation to the symbol & attaching that to a meaning). In other words they do not have the necessary assumed grid from which to operate. The answer is really quite simple. The first four are the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The last two are not letters; they are words. “Buraysheet” is the first word of the Hebrew Bible, and “Yuyall” is the last word of the Hebrew Bible found in 2 Chronicles.
The point is simple. Without the grid, the data is meaningless. And especially if one imposes the “cannot appeal to language” stipulation. Then, even the letters and words above cannot have meaning. To impose the restriction is to negate ever arriving at the meaning.
The discussion, where this idea was found, appeared in a discussion over theology. At least one person used this idea to pigeonhole all those interacted with as being biased. The tactic was to point out the theological label or system of thought; and then call it an irresponsible imposition upon the Biblical data.
This then pushes the discussion into the realm of Systematic Theology versus Biblical theology, and this pushes the discussion into the realm of deductive versus inductive approaches to the Biblical data.
First, if a purely inductive approach renders the data incomprehensible, then the question concerns not “whether or not one approaches with preconceptions;” but the question concerns “with which preconceptions one approaches the data.” The very nature of the discussion is revamped.
Second, an example needs to be given. This will suppose the typical approach of letting the data speak for itself. One needs to jettison words like Calvinism and Arminianism and approach the text without those preconceptions. However, one should observe that after that person has jettisoned those labels, the conceptual grid may still remain. So now that person needs to jettison those conceptual grids. Now the person is set to approach the text. But wait! He is assuming that he can read the text; he is assuming that his mind is capable of determining contradiction from apparent contradiction; he is assuming a certain view of history (historiography) whenever he reads a narrative (or else it is meaningless); he is assuming that his eyes are perceiving the words on the page correctly; he is assuming that the English translation being read is correct; he is assuming that he/she and the book is real (metaphysical assumption); he is assuming that “reality” is of a certain nature; he is also assuming that correct thinking leads to correct conclusions when confronted with the data; he is assuming that his mind is working properly; he is hopefully assuming the authority of Scripture over his mind; and he is assuming that he is not brining any other bad assumption to the text (etc). In short, there is no shortage of assumptions one is bringing to the text when he says he is approaching it without assumptions. One may as well be saying that he is going to approach life without living.
The point is simple. Negating labels does not really solve anything, other than to eliminate potentially hazardous political jargon (political maneuver). Negating labels does nothing towards eliminating preconceptions, for preconceptions are a necessary and inevitable way of working with the data.
Third, when one says, “I approach with no preconceptions,” this is at best misleading; and at worst this is just plain deceptive.
Fourth, one who has presuppositions/assumptions is not caught up in a irretrievably tangled web of post-modern subjectivity. However, this whole issue goes beyond the main point of this post.
Fifth, when one employs the “jettison Arminianism or Calvinism” preconception, this is to say that that person will assume from the outset that these two positions are default wrong. It is to assume a-priori a predetermined method that excludes those two options from the outset. The (personal) approach of this author is to try to get to the back of the two systems to find out what are the guiding assumptions that determine the data; assess the assumptions; and then follow the assumption most warranted.
Sixth, this post is not arguing against an inductive method. It is arguing against the idea of a “pure” inductive method. Great merit is in the inductive approach to studying the Bible. Great deception is in the pretence of a purely inductive method.
The point will be restated. Presuppositions are unavoidable; data is impossible to examine without presuppositions; and “neutral/brute” data is meaningless. The key question then appears to be, “How does one discern between differing assumptions?”
I wrote this with the intent to inform and caution others, and I hope to learn from the interaction that others bring to the issue. That is why I am posting this on Sharperiron. The fact that I’m posting this on April 1 has nothing intentionally to do with its content. I had a little free time, so here is this post. I look forward to reading the responses.