Notes on Wright’s Critical Realism

From New Testament and the People of God.   Wright has since alluded to this topic in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  I will utilize those insights as well, but since I don’t know how to “chart and graph stuff” on a blog (or I do but I don’t feel like it), I probably won’t go into detail with PFG.

Wright surveys the standard post-Enlightenment reactions towards the problem of truth.

positivism: affirms the reality and possibility of definite knowledge.  Only things that can be empirically tested can yield knowledge (I understand the nuances between falsification and verification; let those slide for the moment).  Unfortunately, it is self-refuting by its own criteria.  The only people who hold this today are tenured academics in social sciences and Freshman Neckbeards.  Wright offers a helpful diagream (Wright 35):

observer ————————————–>Objecty
*simply looking at objective reality
*tested by empirical observation
* if it doesn’t work, it’s nonsense

phenomenalism: the only things I can be sure of are what appear to me in the external world (34).

Observer———————————–> Object
* I seem to have evidence of external reality

Observer      <———————————
* but I am really only sure of my sense data

As Wright helpfully summarizes, the positivist thinks he is looking through a telescope.  The phenomenalist fears he might just be looking at a mirror.

Wright now advances his thesis on critical realism:

(1) acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower, while also acknowledging that the only path we have to this reality is a spiraling path of appropriate dialogue between the knower and the thing known (hence critical; p. 35).

A Reformed reader will say, “But this sounds just like presuppositionalism.”  Kind of, but there are important differences (and I think, advances).  Critical realism better accounts for “social imaginaries,” those symbols, values, and narratives which shape a consciousness while sometimes remaining on the tacit level. Such a picture would look like this:

Observer———————————–> Object
*initial observation

Observer      <———————————
*challenged by critical reflection

Observer———————————–> Object
*but can survive the challenge and speak truly about reality


This model has a number of useful dividends.  It accounts for the possibility and reality of knowledge.  Yet, it is not naive and understands how presuppositions work.  Unlike earlier presuppositional models, it takes into account how metanarratives, institutions, symbols and values influence not only the individual but the unconscious of the reading community.

Critical realism, perhaps in some ways most importantly, also takes account of liturgies.  I had one leading presuppositionalist on Puritanboard tell me I needed to repent and believe the gospel because I suggested the liturgy can function formatively on the tacit level.

Frame: Early Christian Philosophy

I’m more critical on Frame on this section.  I am not a specialist in patristic literature, but I think I am close.  Still, Frame has a number of incisive points that are worth mentioning.

Justin Martyr

Logos is logos spermatikos, the seed of reason in all peoples.   Justin tends to ignore the principle that men suppress the truth in unrighteousness (91).

Via Negativa

Justin says we should prefer negative descriptions of God.  This isn’t biblical.  Scripture doesn’t hesitate to ascribe positive names to God.  Differerence here between covenantal thinking.


Borderline Gnostic.  God doesn’t create directly “but brings forth subordinate beings to the task” (92).  For a great survey see Colin Gunton’s The Triune Creator.


rule of faith:  early baptismal creed (Frame 95).


Stronger doctrine of the antithesis and a development in Christian epistemology (98).  Tertullian was a traducianist.  Tended to confuse metaphysical and ethical categories.


Decent summary of Nicene controversy.  The reader is encouraged to seek out Torrance on Athanasius.  Frame hints that Athanasius was present at Nicea and made speeches (106).  This is highly doubtful.


Good survey of Augustine’s epistemology. I can doubt but I can never doubt my doubting.  Truth by nature is imperishable.  If truth passes away, then it is true that truth passes away.  Therefore, truth didn’t pass away.

My criticisms of Frame in this chapter

*He faults Irenaeus for holding to recapitulation (96), thinking it leads to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Well, but what about Ephesians 1:10?

Frame: The Greeks

This is where neo-Puritans and Scholastics of all stripes will get mad.  Rebutting any form (or perceived form) of Harnack’s charge on Hellenism is the new sexy in theology today.

But there is a Hellenism.  And it isn’t good.   Frame does a pretty good job summarizing different Greek thinkers, but I want to pay attention to the larger picture:

Major Premise: “The Biblical God tolerates no Rivals.”  What makes Zeus less offensive than Moloch? Aphrodite than Ashteroth?

There is no way to reduce “Greek thought” to any one position.  Some thinkers were monists, others atomists.  But there are patterns that overlap and are not compatible with biblical revelation.  Here are some unifying (oops, is that a Greek concept?) principles:

  1. None of them believed in Yahweh.
  2. None believed that a personal God (absolute personality) created the cosmos.
  3. “The dictates of fate might  agree with those of morality, but not necessarily” (Frame 49).
  4. Form-matter dialectic.
  5. The gods were personifications of nature (this is clearer by the time of Plotinus).
  6. Rejected wisdom of the past; reason is now the measure.  Not only is this a break with biblical tradition, but with most other human tradition.
  7. Reason, not the fear of the Lord, is the beginning of wisdom.

General Moments

Frame does a decent job summarizing the pre-Socratics, Plato, etc.  No need to spend time on it here.

The Greeks weren’t “children looking on the world in wonder,” but “as those without the biblical God suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (53).

Man is the measure of all things = reality is what man says it is = irrationality (62).

Blogging through Frame

I received John Frame’s History of Western Philosophy and Theology for Christ-mass.  I had no intention of buying this volume because I thought my Frame days were over.  Further, what new material can a survey of Philosophy cover?

I was wrong.  Frame’s text has numerous ‘lagniappe’ that you won’t find in other texts (links to audio, references to modern Reformed thinkers, etc).  In other words, it’s fun.

But more importantly, it’s conducive to piety.  Frame defines theology as the application, by persons, of God’s word to all of life (Frame 4).  Sure, there is a Kuyperian thrust and that can be abused, but on the whole I appreciate it.

Highlights Chapter 1

This is an intro chapter.

*We can almost say that biblical philosophy is a reflection on the wisdom literature (1).

He reduces metaphysical discussions to: Is reality One, Many, or Both?  (Hint: It’s both).

*God is absolute tri-personality (16-17).  He relates to his creation in terms of Lordship.  Lordship is explained as authority (normative), control, and presence.

I think this is a good move, but there is a subtle anti-substance metaphysic involved.  Substance metaphysics would usually say that reality is “cut at the joints,” meaning a universe of parts, whole, etc.  That’s fine as far as it goes and few would disagree.  Traditionally, though, that concept would get applied to God.

Frame (perhaps subconsciously) does not allow that.  We aren’t now speaking of God’s transcendence in a way that he is spatially “above” or separated from the universe (though certainly not identical with it).  The language is no longer spatial, but covenantal.

Perspectives on Human Knowledge

*Our knowledge is related to God in 3 ways (19):
1. Control (our situation governed by his providence)
2. Authority (what God reveals in his Word and Creation)
3. Presence (Covenant)

transcendence: God’s exaltation and lordship.
Immanence: Omnipresence in blessing and judgment

The human subject of knowledge is God’s creature and God’s image.