Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason is an important contribution to the ongoing debate within evangelicalism about how to get along as a family of churches. Her narrative reveals how this family of churches has sought to grapple with inherited problems and the fractures between its Holiness-Pentecostal, Reformed-Baptist, and Mennonite-Brethren wings (Lutherans are absent; Anglicans occasionally appear). Different theological sources and emphases sometimes mean these camps talk past one another. Yet, by cataloguing the diversity of sources she succeeds in her stated aim of showing just how broad evangelical intellectual life is.
Having said that, her discussion of presuppositionalism within the evangelical world does not get at the full range of positions. Worthen rightly associates presuppositionalism as a stated method within the Reformed-Baptist arc of the evangelical world. But this presuppositionalism is largely discussed in terms of two streams, namely that flowing through the Westminster theologian Cornelius Van Till and that flowing through his Presbyterian nemesis Gordon H. Clark. One evangelical philosopher left out of her account who does not fit neatly in either of those camps is Ronald Nash, a Reformed Baptist who ran a program at Western Kentucky University for over two decades before retiring in 1991 to take another post at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and then finishing out his career at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nash trained a lot of students in the evangelical world.
Viewing evangelicalism through Nash’s work helps one understand just how broad the presuppositionalist landscape could be. He described himself as a Christian rationalist in the tradition of Logos theology, which he interpreted through an Augustinian lens. In his Word of God and Mind of Man, Nash argued for a correspondence between the divine mind and human minds on the basis of innate ideas that were part of the structure of human rationality. The Son is the eternal Logos who holds the patterns of all of life, and these patterns form the rational structure to the universe and the human mind itself. It was through this Logos theology, as refined by Augustine, that Nash claimed a connection between human rationality, a rational world, and God. This was the center of his thought.
Nash described himself as an inductive presuppositionalist to distance himself from Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Till. Indeed, he thought of the latter as engaged in a religious revolt against logic because, according to Nash, Van Till did not believe there was a correspondence between human thought and divine thought. The only legitimate knowledge of God came through the divine revelation of scripture. In fairness, Nash knew that Van Till could be read differently, but he saw this as an inconsistency in which Van Till claimed one position and acted as though he held another. He sided with Gordon Clark and Carl Henry that the laws of logic were both in the mind of God and in human minds and thus there was a correspondence between both.
Yet, Nash was not happy with Gordon Clark’s efforts to deduce everything from scripture with the exception of the existence of God. Nash called Clark’s position deductive presuppositionalism. Instead, for Nash, one must reason one’s way to the truth inductively, which created space for all domains of knowledge. The criterion of truth was coherence among the various disciplines. He saw himself as operating in the same way that any scientist would operate insofar as he asked the conditions that made sense of the phenomena he observed in the world. On this point, he placed himself in alliance with Arthur Holmes and quoted approvingly of Holmes’ criticisms that Clark had not properly understood the purpose of philosophy to elaborate a vision of life through a number of sources, including the philosopher’s own historical context.
For Nash, presuppositionalism was simply a way to affirm first the presence of forms of human knowledge in the mind and second the beliefs that emerged from those forms. In this sense, it was a very broad notion that was not uniquely Reformed. It was a fusion of the divine illumination theory of Augustine with the Reformed epistemology being developed by Alvin Plantinga and company. Moreover, it allowed for empirical methods even while Nash rejected philosophical empiricism.
This was the core out of which Nash operated, and he was a cultural warrior. He thought that much of what counted as neo-orthodoxy sacrificed cognitive content to revelation in favor a personal, non-cognitive revelation (Barth was exempted to a certain extent). His point was that human language could convey knowledge of God, which meant that any form of revelation communicated the truth as it existed objectively first in God’s mind and then in the structures of the world. This was the basis for a doctrine of the verbal inspiration of scripture. On this basis, he fought tooth and nail against the moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention or any other part of the evangelical world who rejected the idea that the Bible was the Word of God in favor of the idea that the Bible became the Word of God in encounter or contained the Word of God in some way.
Nash pushed cognitive content to revelation so hard at times that it could cloud his judgment about the Holiness-Pentecostal wing of evangelicalism. He saw it as mired in an experientialism reminiscent of Schleiermacher’s religion of absolute dependence. This is ironic given that Nash located himself in a Platonic-Augustinian stream of rationalism, which was the very stream that provided the background to Christian mysticism. His desire to carve out a space between neo-orthodoxy and experientialists like Schleiermacher blinded him to the shared Augustinian framework with Holiness-Pentecostals. He seemed oblivious to the cognitive view of the affections emerging in the late 1970s through the work of Robert Solomon and others. Nor did he mine Augustine’s own understanding of the affections in the way that James K. A. Smith has done.
Reading Worthen’s account of evangelicalism is a breath of fresh air in many ways because she works hard to allow the diversity of the movement to come forth, and largely succeeds. But Nash’s understanding of presuppositionalism is not uniquely Reformed; rather it is a broad Augustinianism adopted to the twentieth century in conversation with Reformed sources. Even though Nash failed to see it, such a broad Augustinianism actually has common ground with the Holiness-Pentecostal concern for affective transformation and ecstatic encounter.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?