Intellectualism/Voluntarism and Evidentialism/Presuppositionalism

I’ve been digging into an old debate for my dissertation, the one between intellectualists and voluntarists. There is considerable variation in each category, probably more in the latter, but there are some common threads in each.

Basically, intellectualists think that the reason should (or does—there’s one significant variation) lead the human person, telling the will what to do. Voluntarists feel (ahem!) that the human will guides the person: you always do what you want.

That’s a two-sentence summary of a lot of material, and, frankly, I feel like I’m still only on the edge of really understanding all of this.

But let’s take two worldviewish claims from the NY Times and examine them quickly from the two perspectives:

The editors at Snopes.com, in an excerpt I’ve quoted before:

Especially in politics, most everything has infinite shades of gray to it, but people just want things to be true or false…. In the larger sense, it’s people wanting confirmation of their world view.

The author of an article on Islam and Christianity:

Why do people tend to hear only one side of the story? A common explanation is that the digital age makes it easy to wall yourself off from inconvenient data, to spend your time in ideological “cocoons,” to hang out at blogs where you are part of a choir that gets preached to.

Makes sense to me. But, however big a role the Internet plays, it’s just amplifying something human: a tendency to latch onto evidence consistent with your worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence.

Both of these secular people are sounding the same note, one that can be harmonized with either an intellectualist or a voluntarist perspective.

Intellectualists would tell such a person that they shouldn’t let their affections direct their thinking. Approach a topic dispassionately, objectively. Try to eliminate heart motives altogether. As long as you have all the facts and the necessary brain power you’ll come out right.

Voluntarists would tell such a person that until they get their affections directed appropriately—until they love the right things—they will never really think rightly. Christian voluntarists would say that the fear of the Lord is the very beginning of wisdom. In other words, the “principal part” (רֵאשִׁית) of right knowledge is an affection, a heart direction: fearing the Lord.

I think that presuppositionalism tends to fit better with a voluntarist paradigm. You don’t know the truth because you’ve suppressed it; you’ve suppressed it because your deeds are evil and you want to keep doing them.

Intellectualism, I think, leans toward an evidentialist apologetic: let’s come and reason together; if I can just get you to see the facts in their proper relationships, I’ll persuade you to see the truth of what I’m saying.

I think God authorizes (and models in Scripture) both approaches. Paul uses evidence when he appeals to eyewitnesses in 1 Cor 15 as proof of a major gospel proposition: Christ was raised from the dead. And Solomon evokes presuppositionalism when he says that real knowledge doesn’t even start until you fear God.

I won’t overtly take sides at this point; I’ll only note that your inclination toward either evidentialism or presuppositionalism may come from a prior commitment to intellectualism or voluntarism.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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