Foundationalist epistemology and the concern for systematic order

(A title just guaranteed to bring the readers flocking…)

I have had cause to notice before, certainly in print and I think on this blog, that the older dogmaticians were not particularly interested in the order in which they treated topics. The great medieval systems tended to follow the pattern of Lombard’s Sentences, which in turn owed at least something to the shape of the creed; that this order was fairly uncontroversial and unquestioned is already indicative that they generally did not think the arrangement mattered very much.

The theologians of the nascent school traditions that arose after the Reformation were faced with the same question, and with at least two reasons to take it seriously: a humanist concern for good order in writing; and the influence of the new system of logic of Peter Ramus (in addition, whilst clearly respecting and borrowing often from the pre-Reformation schools, they were also conscious of a need to do theology differently). In Ames’s Medulla, for example, there is a conscious attempt, represented by the chart, to construct theology in terms of a series of Ramist bifurcations; Perkins’s Catena, by constrast, deliberately adopts a narrative approach – again, see the chart – using salvation history to determine the order in which topics are treated.

All of these decisions are essentially heuristic, however: they are attempts to find a natural and logical manner of presenting a body of material in order to help the readers’ understanding of it. Ames locates (some of) his doctrine of Scripture under the head of ‘extraordinary ministers of the church,’ taking the role of the prophets and apostles as his way in; this is one side of a discussion of the church’s ministry (the other being the ‘ordinary ministers of the church’, and an account of ecclesiology); as such it appears several divisions down, buried deep in the body of the text. Polanus started his Syntagma¬†with (an account of theological methodology and then) a doctrine of Scripture; no reader of the day would have assumed from this that Ames thought Scripture less important or foundational than Polanus.

In nineteenth-century theology, this changed. The ordering of a system was suddenly central: placing Scripture first was a claim concerning the importance of that doctrine, and the method adopted in the system that followed. Order of presentation became a clue to method and intent. This instinct shaped – and still shapes – new dogmatic writing: concern over the ordering of topics is a mark of most serious dogmatics in the last two centuries. It was also read back, unhelpfully, into the tradition, leading to claims of an old theological method that first assumed, and them built on, a doctrine of Scripture, for instance.

So far I have said little new; the connection that strikes me, and that I do not recall seeing explored in the literature, is this: there is both a temporal coincidence, and a logical coherence, between the concern for systematic order and the widespread assumption of a foundationalist epistemology.

The eighteenth-century quest to find an indubitable basis for human knowledge was noble in its aspirations: if we could find something on which we must all agree, then rational dialogue between human beings of different beliefs and convictions would be possible. The tragedy of modernity, which still shapes most of our discourse, is that the quest failed; there is nothing that we cannot doubt, not Descartes’¬†cogito, not Locke’s commitment to sense-data, not Kant’s imperative, certainly not Hegel’s speculations. Our intelligent discourse at present is sometimes tradition-specific; sometimes an attempt to propose an ethical, rather than metaphysical, shared ground (environmental concern appears the best candidate, sufficiently convincing in the last decade to have led some recent retreats from principled postmodernity); and sometimes a discussion of how to continue rational dialogue between traditions with no common basis.

Whilst the quest was still live, however, it necessarily proposed the privileging of a particular epistemological scheme, these days known as foundationalism. That is, whilst we saw the fundamental problem in epistemology as being the articulation of shared basic beliefs, it was inevitable that we constructed our accounts of what truth looks like on the basis of a conviction that there are basic foundational truths, whence all other truths must be capable of derivation, to be considered as truths.

Theology constructed in a foundationalist mode will be endlessly concerned with identifying the order of the doctrines – which is basic, and which is derived? Is all else proved from a doctrine of Scripture, or from a doctrine of God, or from an account of faith (Bultmann…), or …? Which claim is the foundation stone on which the system rests?

As will already be clear, I am convinced that we will not find shared foundations for our discourse – the enlightenment quest was magnificent in conception, but the Grail remains, as always, unobtainable. Because of this, I feel able – at the level of logic – to reject out-of-hand concerns over the ordering of doctrines. As for the pre-modern and early modern theologians, each locus stands together with the others; the structure is mutually-reinforcing, but no point of it is more basic, more foundational, than any other. I could put angelology first in my system, for all I care; or I could, fairly unreflectively, adopt the old creedal pattern. It matters not.

Things are not so simple, of course: others seem to remain committed to interpreting theology on a foundationalist pattern, and so still read the ordering of doctrines as disclosing something of the logical ordering of the system. For this reason, beginning with the angels might be the best way to write a dogmatics currently, just to make the point that the order is of no interest. (Jim McClendon began with his ethics, for different but connected reasons.)


  1. alastairjroberts
    Feb 5, 2012

    Well, if you started with the angels you might have a good precedent in the book of Hebrews…

    • Steve H
      Feb 5, 2012


  2. gospelcentral
    Feb 6, 2012

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for the post. Very thoughtful as usual.

    One point of qualification about the medieval era: an exception to the Sentences tradition was Aquinas. He abandoned it and produced the Summa (which was neglected for 2 centuries or so). But it seems that he had a definite ordering in mind in the way he began the Summa to reflect his grace perfects nature epistemology? Perhaps this is a foretaste of later foundationalism?

    Every blessing,


  3. Terry
    Feb 6, 2012

    What did you think to John’s Rhythm of Doctrine, Steve? It makes sense to me to order one’s thoughts according to the Christian year.

  4. rachelmuers
    Feb 10, 2012

    Incidentally, Anna Williams’ “The Architecture of Theology” is very interesting on the idea of theological “system”, and the relationship between coherence and theological truth. And part of her argument is that “systematic theology” is not the definition of a genre or form (so theology can be “systematic” – pointing towards reasoned coherence – without being written/ordered as a “system”).

  5. Dan Arnold
    Feb 12, 2012

    As soon as I saw the title to this post, I just had to read it! Very interesting, but did Lombard order his Sentences because of a (proto) Foundationalist Epistomology or for other reasons?

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

get facebook like button