Created To Know: A Comparison Of The Epistemologies Of Michael Polanyi And Francis Schaeffer -- By: Adam Lloyd Johnson

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 79:1 (Spring 2017)
Article: Created To Know: A Comparison Of The Epistemologies Of Michael Polanyi And Francis Schaeffer
Author: Adam Lloyd Johnson


Created To Know:
A Comparison Of The Epistemologies Of
Michael Polanyi And Francis Schaeffer

Adam Lloyd Johnson

Adam Lloyd Johnson is a PhD candidate in Theological Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

During the mid to latter part of the twentieth century, thinkers from various disciplines spoke out against the epistemological conclusions of Modernism. Some of them thought that the modern view of human knowledge had been a major impetus behind the carnage of World War I, World War II, fascism, and communism. One such thinker, Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), a world-renowned physical chemist, recognized that this incomplete understanding of knowledge had become especially prevalent in the scientific community. He turned to the study of philosophy in order to explore how these ideas came about and to propose a much needed course correction. In his major work he wrote, “This is primarily an enquiry into the nature and justification of scientific knowledge. But my reconsideration of scientific knowledge leads on to a wide range of questions outside science.”1

Likewise, Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984), an influential Presbyterian pastor and missionary, recognized that many of the moral issues he was fighting—drug use, amorality, disregard for human life, governmental oppression, and loss of personal freedom in society—were the result of this confused epistemology. He wrote in 1972, “Those who have been raised in the last couple of decades stand right here in the area of epistemology. The really great problem is not, for example, drugs or amorality. The problem is knowing.”2 He claimed that “epistemology was the central problem of our generation.”3 In this article I will demonstrate that Schaeffer appreciated Polanyi’s epistemological insight and was influenced by Polanyi in this area to some degree. However, I will argue that Schaeffer thought Polanyi’s epistemology was ultimately insufficient because it did not have a strong enough ontological foundation. This issue is worth serious consideration if we are to avoid repeating the carnage of our recent past.

I. Similarities In Diagnosing The Problem

Both Polanyi and Schaeffer traced a similar path through western intellectual history as they sought to explain where this distorted view of epistemology came from. Polanyi argued that the root of the problem extended all the way back to William of Ockham (1287–1347). He wrote, “Ockham brought scholasticism to a close by declaring that faith and reason were incompat...

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