Thursday, January 26, 2012

On the Pragmatism Worldview

Pragmatism = “If it works do it, the end justifies the means.”

John Dewey is considered both the father of progressive (socialist) education and the father of pragmatism, which can be stated in essence as “if it works-it’s good.”

I have found that many Christians prefer to take a pragmatic approach to life, business, church, family, economics, politics and more.  They might say that "God gave you a brain, so use it." "After all, it is just common sense."  "Let's just be practical and vote for the candidate that has a chance to win the election."  These all seem reasonable, unless you know what the Bible says about a subject.  It is even more revealing when one compares what the Bible says about a topic with the views of the philosphers who taught the present generation to be "practical."

Here are a few quotes from references that I have found helpful:

Pragmatism is "1. A movement consisting of varying but associated theories, originally developed by Charles S.  Pierce and William James and distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences. 2. A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems."[1]
"While most of the philosophies that have shaped American culture are European in origin, pragmatism is at least one worldview that was born in the United States. Its assumptions lie at the heart of postmodernism, that catch-all term used to describe the views that dominate Western thinking in the first part of the twenty-first century.
Pragmatic philosophers are generally agnostic as to whether ultimate, transcendent truth even exists. Even if objective truth exists, they say, it cannot be known, nor is it even worth pursuing. Truth is therefore radically redefined. Traditionally, truth is regarded as that which corresponds to reality. However, truth in pragmatism is what “works.”
This leads to relativism. What “works” for you is not necessarily what “works” for me. Christianity may make me a happier person; thus, it is true for me. Muslims find that Islam makes them happy, and so Islam is true for them since it “works” for them. Rational discussion, or an appeal to a final norm, cannot solve disagreements over what “works”; therefore, the group with the most power wins when pragmatism is wholly embraced. If homosexuality works for me, then I must gain power to silence those who, by convincing others that my behavior is unacceptable, can create cultural impediments that hinder my enjoyment. I will not try to debate those who disagree since there is no universal standard to which we can appeal.
Pragmatism usually looks for immediate solutions without considering whether the answers will work in the long haul. Perhaps the best example of this is the Social Security system in the United States. The problem of people not saving enough for retirement was “solved” by mandating contributions to a government-sponsored savings plan. No one seriously considered whether there would always be enough workers to support these benefits, and now the time is coming when Social Security will be unable to pay out what the government has promised. Jesus opposes this type of short-term thinking, calling us to count the long-term costs of following Him (Luke 14:25–33).  
The corrupting influences of pragmatism are seen even in the church. “Seeker-sensitive” worship can increase attendance without ever seeing the congregation grow to maturity. Churches targeting specific ages or lifestyles might attract a lot of people from these groups and not minister to those who do not fit certain classifications. Beware of any ministry that emphasizes “what works” and do what you can to help your church avoid slipping into pragmatism."[2]

"A Timely Message From Screwbaal

Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Screwbaal (please, not Screwball): a demon of no small magnitude. My great uncle Screwtape was likewise a high-order demon and well acknowledged and respected by those in our camp years ago. As an arch demon, I have been given numerous tasks by our Father Below. The first and foremost was to overthrow those Christians who hold to the Reformation principles established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Those were bad times for my side; the worst work produced during this time was the Westminster Confession of Faith. Those Puritan theologians were serious. “What do I do?” I queried. “How do I proceed?”

”Use any method that works,” my superiors replied.

Pragmatism is very big in Hell. It is, of course, a real victory for our side that we see it used so prevalently in Christian circles today. Hallelubaal!

My first goal was to move the church away from the Reformational principle of Scripture alone. Second, I wanted to introduce the irrationalism of earlier centuries into Christian circles, especially within (so-called) orthodoxy. These, thought I, are key issues. If I can only achieve success here, the rest will all be downhell.

But how to proceed? Well, my foredevils had some success by causing certain elements of the church to believe that the apostolic gifts, such as prophecy and tongues, were still valid. That, of course, was prior to the writing of the great sixteenth and seventeenth century confessions. And after the Westminster Assembly had so succinctly stated in chapter 1 of the Confession: “Those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased,” and then again: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life [what else is there?] is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men,” I thought, this could never work again. But, Satan be praised, I was wrong.

You could probably guess that the easiest prey was that segment of Christianity that is not Reformed in theology. Men like Jimmy Swaggart (boy, there was a real lulu) and Pat Robertson (I thought for a while that I could make him president of the United States-can you conceive of the fun I would have had?). As it is, I did get him to start the “Christian Coalition.” That was a piece of pork.

The early 1960’s were great years. It was at this time that we were able to cause the emotional Pentecostal and charismatic movements to cross denominational barriers. Centuries before “the enthusiasts” had tried to bait Martin Luther into switching his emphasis from salvation by grace through faith alone to “the inner experience” of the Spirit. Sadly, the German Reformer refused, and several of my good friends ended up with slaps on their snouts and ink in their eyes.

But now there is no Luther around to abuse demons. Now, the twentieth century “enthusiasts” have affected most every Protestant church. And at the end of the 1960’s we had seen this movement take hold in Roman Catholicism. In earlier centuries, of course, the concept and institution of the papacy was a tremendous work of my foredevils. After the Reformation, though, we never even dreamed that Romanism could be used so effectively again. But the strength of Pentecostal/charismatic thinking allowed us to bridge the gap between Rome and Protestantism once again. (Just recently we have made great inroads uniting Protestants and Romanists in an ecumenical fog. We even have men such as Charles Colson and J. I. Packer endorsing it.)

The truly Reformed camp was more difficult. Nevertheless, undaunted, I set out to accomplish my goal. And within a relatively short period of time (thirty years is not a long time to us), we had not only introduced “the ongoing use of gifts” concept within Reformational Christianity, but we had scored so big, that the Presbyterian Church in America (at least in practice) had acquiesced. How I chortled at Presbytery meeting after Presbytery meeting (you think we don’t go?) where one excuse after another was used for accepting men into the ministry who fostered the idea that the “gifts” were still valid. Confessional orthodoxy has become a virtual anachronism in much of Presbyterianism anyhow, thanks to our efforts.

I found another way to attack Scripture in philosophy. If I could only get the church to adopt the notion that one is able to come to a knowledge of the truth by sense experience as well as religious experience, then great progress would be made. Sadly, God raised up a philosopher named Gordon Clark to combat this onslaught of mine. Over and over again in his writings Clark showed how Scripture taught that the Bible alone (and not science or philosophy) has a monopoly on truth. This fellow had to be stopped, but how? Ahh, I mused, I will destroy his credentials before Presbytery. If this can be accomplished, even within his own denomination, we will have gained much headway. I pondered: How about if I can get the Westminster Theological Seminary faculty to attack Clark for being too rational? Well, as you may know, the rest is church history. Thankfully, today’s seminaries don’t require Clark’s works to be read (with the exception of Whitefield Theological Seminary; something must be done about that institution). And few if any “Christian” journals or “scholars” acknowledge his writings. There is still, however, this annoying fly of an institution: The Trinity Foundation, which is trying to reintroduce the thoughts of Clark and Christianity to the church.

Well, this brings me to the second offensive against the church, that is, the reintroduction of irrational thought. It was C. S. Lewis who once wrote: “Those who call for nonsense will find that it comes.” I really liked that, and have sought to implement it in the church. The secular academic community has been anti-intellectual for so long that one philosopher has dubbed the twentieth century the “Age of Irrationalism.” But surely the church would not fall into this trap, would they? Well, I thought, it is worth a try. And try I did, with amazing success. Neo-orthodoxy is a direct result of these endeavors. Karl Barth was a real “Satan-send,” as was Emil Brunner. They imbibed the illogical. Then, when I got Dooyeweerd and the Amsterdam Philosophy group to erect a “boundary” between God and man, a boundary so fixed that the laws of logic exist only on man’s side of the boundary, I had them as well. The real difficulty, or so I thought, would be to infiltrate the Reformed segment of Christianity. After all, these guys are students of Scripture, Augustine, Calvin, and the Westminster divines, men who recognized that the laws of logic are simply the way God thinks, and therefore indispensable in the study of the Bible. I asked my tor-mentors, “Where then should I start?”

”Start at the top,” they replied. “Begin with the seminaries.”

”Are you joking?” I replied.

”We don’t do much of that,” said they.

So I went to work, beginning with Fuller and Westminster; and “my, oh my, what a wonderful day!” Within a relatively short period of time we had at least some of the faculty teaching that the Bible contains mistakes and logical paradoxes, that “mere human logic” is not to be trusted, and (shades of Dooyeweerd) that God’s logic is different from man’s logic. Hallelubaal, “nonsense had come.” By the way, I am already making real progress at the other “sems.” In fact, we are so sure of our victory that I have received approval to make our successes known more widely. There are, however, still some hold-outs. This guy Clark “still speaks even though he is dead” through his books and the writings of The Trinity Foundation. I have been unable to penetrate this pocket of rational Christianity, but I have not yet given up. The best I have been able to do so far is to make people believe that their writings are not worth reading. I am certainly not pleased with this, particularly now that more and more people are studying Clark and Scripture. But for now, that’s where things stand. I need more help, but bad help is hard to come by these days.

I really need to be off. So much to do, you see. But, Satan willing, I will be back to update you on the whole matter in the months ahead.

Affectionately yours,  Screwbaal"


1.       Dan Smithwick, Developing a Biblical Worldview (Lexington, KY: Nehemiah Institute, 2000).

2.       RC Sproul, “Pragmatism” Ligonier Ministries, (2 March 2011).

3.       John Robbins, “Those Who Deny the Necessity of the Ground of Justification” Trinity Foundation, <> (2 March 2011).

4.       Robbins, J. Wesley. “Christian World View Philosophy and Pragmatism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56 (Fall 1988): 529-43.  Not yet studied, but title sounds good.