Evangelicalism, Philosophy, and Paul Ricoeur
Every school of theology has its own philosophers it turns to for advice and grounding of the theological project. Evangelicalism has been faring remarkably well without any major philosophical forebears. This of course has to do with the evangelical presupposition that philosophy can be dispensed with for the theological task and that it might even present a danger. This is a one-sided picture, of course. Evangelicals have been reaching out to philosophy. One can think of the old Princeton School of thought that took its queue from Scottish Realism and later the modern apologetics project of people like Cornelius van Til and Bernard Ramm or the more philosophically astute work of Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology. By and large, though, evangelicalism has been focusing on the epistemological question. Evangelical theology, so it is thought, will find its own voice and be heard and listened to as a serious dialogue partner only when it establishes a secure epistemological foundation for itself.
It is my firm belief that this project is doomed. In the first place this makes human knowing the basis for the acceptance of revelation. True, the presupposition may be that God revealed Godself in God’s Word and in Jesus Christ, but this given remains dependent on the acknowledgment of human rason. Biblical scholars busy themselves with the historical reliability and the factual veracity of the biblical material, using tools that have been either invalidated or gone through the fiery crucible of critical deconstruction, while theologians purport to find the univocal teaching of the Bible on many a topic accepting all sorts of presuppositions that go unarticulated as the base themselves on a deconstructed biblical scholarship. It is here that lack of sufficient grounding in philosophy or outdated thinking shows itself. Secondly, the very methods and paradigm of modernity, of which much evangelical theology is very much a part, are being criticized from many different angles that all more or less resort under the umbrella of postmodernity. The theologian can only be as good as the philosopher on whose shoulders he stands. As this problem in evangelical is becoming clear among those of a new generation, the need arises for a new orientation on the role of philosophy and toward new philosophical teachers and sources that can frame evangelical theology. This will help evangelicalism to remain true to its core beliefs and disentangle it from its time-bound confinement within the modernist project moving it along a path to renewed relevance.
I would propose that Paul Ricoeur is such a philosopher that would fit the description of being a source and inspiration for renewal without necessitating a surrender of the evangelical core-values. Ricoeur’s method is both utterly meticulous and balanced. He listens to and evaluates all voices that speak on a certain subject with a hermeneutics of generosity before coming up with a view that ends up being a polished combination of the views of others infused with his own wisdom and innovation. Thus his work is marked by a depth and quality that one rarely encounters. Ricoeur bridges continental and analytic philosophy, widening the scope and breadth of his thought. In the process he integrates linguistics, phenomenology, and hermeneutics while remaining fully conversant with the classic philosophy of the Greeks as well as all major schools of Western philosophy. What makes Ricoeur particularly interesting is his phenomenological and hermeneutical heritage (think of concepts like gnoseological sense or attestation as substitutes for epistemology) with which he moves beyond the confines of Kantian epistemology. In his work we see the re-emerging of ontology through an elaborate and refined dialectical mode of thought. Ricoeur labels himself a post-Hegelian Kantian, i.e. he accepts the limits of the latter, while moving beyond those limits with the help of the former. Ricoeur’s dialectical method rejects the notion univocity (often prevalent in evangelical thinking) and leads to epiphenomenal insights without surrendering the ever-present aporia (i.e. bewilderment). Thus this method does not prevent ontological investigations or epistemic gains from taking place.
In my opinion Ricoeur is a thinker who can function as the recourse for a theology that leaves room for ambiguity in a hermeneutics of the biblical text while still insisting in declaring the words of God; for a theology that wants to have something concrete to say beyond the silence of a dead-end epistemology; for a theology that addresses reflexive modernity instead of being overrun by it; for a theology that seeks and finds a new framework in dialectical thinking and ontological recovery. Such theology has gone through the critical moment and emerges confessing anew the truth of revelation and the presence of God in Jesus Christ.