Foundationalism: Dead or Alive? -- By: Millard J. Erickson

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 005:2 (Summer 2001)
Article: Foundationalism: Dead or Alive?
Author: Millard J. Erickson

Foundationalism: Dead or Alive?

Millard J. Erickson

Millard J. Erickson is the Distinguished Professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. In addition to teaching at a number of institutions during his career, Dr. Erickson also served as the Vice President and Dean at Bethel Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including the recently published Making Sense of the Trinity (Baker) and a forthcoming work titled Truth or Consequences: The Promise and Perils of Postmodernism (IVP).


One of the most prominent terms in recent characterizations of the differences between modern and postmodern is foundationalism. Modernism made a strong appeal to foundationalism, but postmodernists are virtually unanimous in the opinion that foundationalism must be rejected. Indeed, James McClendon and Nancey Murphy regard holism rather than foundationalism as one of the criteria of postmodernism.1 The purpose of this article will be to examine the nature of this dispute to determine whether foundationalism is indeed untenable as a means of justifying theological doctrine.

Definition of the Issue

In general, classical foundationalism is the contention that in the knowing process, there are certain unshakeable starting points that are not justified by any other propositions. They are immediately justified because they possess a character such that they are indubitable (i.e., cannot be doubted) or incorrigible (i.e., it is not possible to be mistaken about them). In the rationalist form of foundationalism, found in Descartes, such a foundation is known rationally, or by pure thought. For an empiricist like Locke, the foundation is sense data. The second element of foundationalism is that these foundations serve as justification for other beliefs, which are therefore mediately justified.

Usually, postmodernists have concentrated their attacks on a model of classical foundationalism, often singling out Descartes. In some ways that has presented a relatively easy target. When foundationalism is said to be dead, classical foundationalism is usually meant. However, since about 1975, significantly different versions of foundationism have been proposed. These make more modest claims about their effectiveness. Triplett comments, “It is not clear that the standard arguments against foundationalism will work against these newer, more modest theories. Indeed, these theories were by and large designed with the purpose of overcoming standard objections.”2 An accurate discussion of foundationalism must take into account these developments. William Alston speaks of two ...

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