Problems to Principles

Problems to Principles

It is interesting to watch the way many debates go these days. Often, I notice when people are discussing a topic, they start with a principle and then attempt to solve problems that they see with their principled position. A system is built and the only thing left to do is apply it real world situations. You can see this in various discussions whether it be about religion, politics, or sports. Frequently, the assumption is that if you have the correct principle then you can solve all the problems. What has been intriguing for me is the difference Bavinck, the theologian whom I study, writes his dogmatics and many of essays.

Very rarely does he start with his position (or system) and then knock down all the opposing positions. Bavinck will regularly start with the problem and systematically work his way to a solution. Bavinck states:

For a long time one assumed to solve every issue by applying 'principles', theoretically, deductively, but reality did not bother itself with this. It proceeded and placed a barrier against those abstract principles. Facts were more powerful than principles.

George Harinck notes that Bavinck's critique was that:

Bavinck has been confronted with what he considered to be a failure of the Kuyperian, deductive way of reasoning in his neo-Calvinist circles about society, ethics, and about theology. The principles turned out to be non-applicable.

Bavinck thought the solution was to start with the problem and then engage with it. This style allowed for Bavinck to enter into debate and dialogue with different perspectives. It allowed him to listen to the person with whom he was in discussion.

Bavinck's model is to start with the problem and work his way to a principle. This can be frustrating at times. For instance, in my own research there are times that he uses concepts or terms without defining them. However, Bavinck's method has taught me at least two things. First, it is important to truly understand and struggle with an argument in the development of principles. It can often be easy to have my principles and try to force a solution to problems with my principles. Second, it has shown that often the truth is much more complicated than any one position will portray. That is not to say that the truth is elusive or ever changing, but it is to say that often it is more complicated than any one-sentence principle can embody.

Much could be learned from Bavinck's style. This can be seen even the statement of one of Bavinck's PhD students, Barend Bartholomeus Keets, who fought apartheid in South Africa:

One of the most dangerous phenomena in human thought is the tendency to abstract, i.e. to build up, in complete detachment from reality, theories that are very attractive in themselves, but that take little account of the actual facts. It is comparatively easy to construct such a system of ideas, and it may be quite consistent logically, but when it is tested by reality its inadequacy becomes apparent, because it does not at all correspond to the actual situation.

Moving from the problem to principles is difficult. However, watching Bavinck do this, I am convinced this process can be of great reward for us. Engaging with problems in the real world, as opposed to abstract system building, teaches us to better listen, understand, and learn from each other.

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