Understanding Scholarly Presuppositions: A Crucial Tool For Research? -- By: Paul Helm

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 44:1 (NA 1993)
Article: Understanding Scholarly Presuppositions: A Crucial Tool For Research?
Author: Paul Helm

Understanding Scholarly Presuppositions:
A Crucial Tool For Research?1

Paul Helm


It is argued that all scholarly enquiry unavoidably rests on either tacitly or explicitly accepted presuppositions. Such presuppositions control enquiry with varying degrees of strength, functioning either as axioms or methodological assumptions. In the interests of objectivity the Christian scholar has the duty to test his own presuppositions by reference to the primary documents of his faith, and by reflecting upon the different presuppositions adopted by other scholars. The quest for scholarly objectivity must not be confused with neutrality.

One sometimes hears it said that it is possible to undertake biblical exegesis ‘scientifically’, without presuppositions; or, contrariwise, that differences between scholars boil down to differences in their presuppositions, the implication of the remark being that if the disagreement is about presuppositions then at that point argument must cease. Sometimes ‘presuppositionalism’ is elevated into a method of Christian apologetics; only if the Bible is presupposed, it is said, can life be made sense of.

Thus may presuppositions or their absence be praised or blamed. In view of the widespread and differing uses of the term it may be worthwhile to reflect about presuppositions in a little more consecutive fashion than is usually done. It is intended (I) to begin with five theses about presuppositions, each briefly defended, (II) to illustrate some of these by reference to the study of the text of Scripture and (III) to conclude from these reflections with some brief remarks about objectivity and neutrality.

I. Five Theses About Presuppositions

1. All Argument Or Rational Enquiry Requires Presuppositions

There is nothing in the least surprising about this. Conclusions cannot be spun out of fresh air, but need support. And that support begins

with premisses, propositions which are taken for granted in the enquiry. The need for such premisses is a matter of logic. In order to conduct an enquiry some things must be taken for granted. If everything were to be questioned at once then, paradoxically, nothing could be questioned. It is only by holding certain things constant that certain other things can be varied. What is held constant on one occasion may, on another occasion, be called into question and critically examined. But this can only happen if yet other matters are taken as premisses or presuppositions.

This is most obviously the case in deductive argument, the purest kind of ‘reason’. Deduction is a way of v...

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