Denotation, Connotation, and the Biblical “Paradigm”


In a recent blog post, Michael Horton shares a number of helpful points about the mindset of unbelief. In what presents itself as objectivity, the unbeliever actually brings a host of baggage with him or her. This is especially the case in the hard sciences, where supposedly neutral thinkers entertain new claims in an open and objective fashion. He writes,

Scientists disagree about all sorts of things: from matters as metaphysical as string theory to details over genetic mutation. In fact, as Michael Polanyi argued years ago, scientists belong to a concrete, historical community of interpretation. They too have lives, histories, and experiences within which they interpret reality.

Polanyi is useful here, but he’s not the only one. You could also reference Thomas Kuhn or even Michel Foucault at this point. People often fail to recognize their fundamental commitments—their presuppostions. These presuppositions guide, shape, and even control one’s thoughts about truth claims and the world around them. They’re individual and pervasive. We might expect that this wide variety of epistemic contexts would lead to a equally wide variety of approaches to the “big questions” of hard science. Yet this is precisely what has not happened in the history of scientific thought. There has been and continues to be a strong resistance to major paradigm shifts. Horton writes,

We all remember the ill-fated pronouncements of the church in relation to Copernicus and Galileo, but it was scientists who made the biggest fuss at least initially over the new cosmology. Not unlike religious communities, the scientific community resists massive paradigm shifts. That’s good, because we’d be starting over every day if it were otherwise. It takes a lot of anomalies to overthrow a well-established paradigm. But it happens.

The reigning paradigm does what it can to snuff out competing paradigms. As Horton comments, this tendency can be a good thing, but it can also allow a form of scientific fundamentalism to masquerade as open inquiry. Horton continues:

Of course, none of us is neutral. We all come to the evidence with big assumptions about reality. The Holy Spirit alone can bring conversion, but he does so through his Word. And he also uses supporting arguments and evidence that reveal too many devastating anomalies—indeed contradictions—that our reigning worldview can’t accommodate. One thing is for certain: to say that miracles do not happen because they cannot happen is as vicious a circle as any argument can be. In fact, it’s not an argument at all, but mere assertion.

A paradigm can prevent someone from accepting a truth claim if for no other reason than he has no working interpretive grid for that claim. Peter Berger developed his notion of “plausibility structures” along these lines. The Christian may speak to an unbeliever about miracles, but a naturalistic paradigm (worldview, episteme, etc.) has no way of incorporating the existence of miracles—ergo, they cannot exist. But the challenge to the gospel is deeper than getting such a person to admit the presence of miracles. Indeed, it’s even greater than proving the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. The Christian apologist must not only overcome a paradigm, he or she must also offer the correct “paradigm” in its place.

Lane Tipton’s article, “Resurrection, Proof, and Presuppositionalism: Acts 17:30-31″ in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics argues exegetically that denotation and connotation can never be separated. In other words, it’s not enough to argue the case that something happened; the biblical apologist must also present the biblical understanding of what it means. This is critical for the apologist seeking to be faithful to Scripture, and it is precisely what Paul did at the Areopagus. Consider the following: the Stoicist can acknowledge the resurrection of Christ; it’s simply an unusual occurence, an “atomic swerve.” He has a plausibility structure that allows for resurrections. But such a “belief” in Christ’s resurrection is not a saving belief.

The task of apologetics is greater than proving facts. It goes to the very heart of the gospel and ultimately seeks to defend that gospel on the only foundation it can: the self-authenticating, self-interpreting, Word of God.


One Response to “Denotation, Connotation, and the Biblical “Paradigm””

  1. patrick says:

    Nice post. I would not recommend Kuhn as a good source for presuppositions in science, though. Secondary literature makes clear that he was not the most careful historian of science, nor is Revolutions a paradigm (ba dum…) of consistency. “Paradigm” itself, as secondary literature has argued, is used in almost two dozen distinct ways by Kuhn (no joke). Unfortunately Kuhn is all many people know. (One) source I would recommend in this context is (perhaps surprisingly) the work of Anne Fausto-Sterling, such as

    Also, Horton is right and not so right in his historical claim. Yes, technically the Copernican system did not actually have more predictive power than the Ptolemaic system at first, at least not until Kepler et al. recorded considerably better observations than Copernicus and Barhe. However, initial objections to the Copernican system were often based on a bad epistemology (e.g., one that placed the Ancients as nearly overriding authorities) and an inane Aristotelian metaphysics (read the Vatican interviews/interrogations of Galileo, for instance, and see how they object). Further, much of, say, Galileo’s much does not have to do with “Theory-building” but with piecemeal experimental projects that turned out to be in conflict with the existing cosmology (e.g., in The Assayer the nature and orbit of comets). So Horton is right but doubly off track in these ways.

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I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve. (Romans 16:17-18)

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