Axiopistos & autopistos

Can we get beyond phrases such as ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘liberal’ in our discussions of biblically based positions? In the Reformed tradition we pride ourselves to be Reformed ‘according to the Scriptures.’ But what does that mean. What prompted our second and third generation Reformed thinkers to adopt such a phrase?

The origin of the phrase is biblical. It is found in I Cor. 15:3, 4: ‘kata grapheis.’ In Latin ‘according to the Scriptures’ reads Secundum Scripturas. At the same time they made a distinction that has largely been lost, but deserves a new hearing. The modern labels of ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘biblicist’ are equally unhelpful as are identifiers such as ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive.’ The terms are loaded with too much baggage. It is too easy to paint one another as being stuck with feet in concrete, or the other as being progressive in the wrong direction.

Al Janssen has said that we are ‘Reformed according to the Word.’ After all, we call our pastors ministers of ‘Word and Sacrament’, not of ‘Scripture and Sacrament.’ That points nicely to what both sides Bible-war sides have in common. It is not the Scriptures as such that are at stake, it is the question of how we ‘hear’ and ‘obey’ (the latter word from the Latin audio –ire: hearing with your feet) as a Living Word.

The early Reformers had to struggle with that in the defense of their approach to Scripture, or —as they would put it— with Scripture’s approach to them! After all, the Roman critics could easily point to passages where Scripture’s claim itself upon Scriptural progeny is quite convoluted, if not dubious. For one such place, look no further than the quoted text of I Cor. 15. Is the Exile in Isaiah really the same as the Abandonment of Christ? A question to be followed by a multitude of difficult questions about the role of Tradition and Scripture!

The issue for these Reformers led to a distinction between what we might call ‘credulity’ and ‘authenticity.’ They used the terms ‘axiopistis’ and ‘autopistos.’ The latter phrase is still used, but the first, revealing a problem with its stance of putting faith in iron clad certitude, fell into disuse. It too clearly exposed a biblically unwarranted stance. But that did not mean that that stance was no longer available, as in inerrancy, for instance.

Think for a moment about the meaning of the two terms: they both clearly ascribe to pistis, the New Testament word for ‘faith.’ Axiopistis refers to an axiomatic faith; the premise or text is posed (posited); the terms of faith are defined (positivism). That is great for Euclidian geometry, but what about the fact that the real world is curved? It is not that the axiom is wrong, it is the question of whether the axiom is adequate. On the other hand, the word ‘auto’ does not imply that autopistic faith moves by itself, at least not anymore than that an automobile moves by itself without an engine (or a tow truck).

Well, said the Reformers —who had to face the Roman Scholastics and thus had to be rather ‘straight’ thinkers to respond to those embedded in that fixed Roman framework— the adequacy has to come from something else, from the inherent ‘power’ of the text. The authority of the Holy Spirit is not an axiomatic one but is authentic. It carries weight (gravity, momentum) with it as the Word of God, for whom Being and Act is One. How do we know that the Word of God is autopistos? It cannot be made into an axiomatic process because we cannot pin down God Almighty in our reason.. In fact, at times God is hidden (absconditus) as Luther and Calvin both affirmed.

The two words, axiopistos and autopistos, point to a difference that does not lie in ‘faith’ (pistis) but in the stirrings of faith.

Axiopistic faith quotes Scripture, but has no intrinsic need for the Holy Spirit other than stating it.

Autopistic faith is Comforting AND Challenging because it relies not on human logic but on the pathos and ethos of God’s Logos.

This last sentence assumes knowledge of how ‘conviction’ works in classical rhetoric. So a very brief explication. Three aspects are necessary for conviction to take hold: logos, ethos and pathos. All three are needed —they overlap as in a Venn diagram we would say nowadays— to reveal a coinciding arena. It is in the latter ‘overlap’ that arguments are settled. Logic by itself can reason (and thus ‘opine’ toward an effect) but without ethos (a place to stand) and without pathos (a place of affect) there will be no true conviction. This center arena is called pistos in Greek rhetoric, the very word the NT uses for ‘faith;’ as a verb: pisteuoo. It is a conviction not by way of axiomatic and exclusive reasoning, but by a willingness to engage, enter the piste of the fullness of life, a decision to participate.

I, for one, think that the debates about the direction that Scripture nudges us in ‘faith’ can helpfully be cast along the lines of this Ur-Reformed distinction of axiopistos and autopistos. Truth is the Coherence of Unity in the Whole. Law can only arrive at an opinion by excluding  everything but reason. But mathematicians and physicists find irrational numbers, imaginary numbers, qualities of infinite and infinitissimal, etc.  indispensable for their craft. And Life to be worthy of that name demands a full engagement of ethos, pathos and logos.

God chose such a full accommodation to convict us in Christ Jesus. We, as people who are committed to live and move and have our being in the arena of such faith, cannot settle for a lesser Way, Life and Truth.

Okke Postma

3 thoughts on “Axiopistos & autopistos

  1. Browsing my bookshelves I ran across Hageman’s Brochure “Our Reformed Faith” (11th edition, 1976); does anyone know if it’s still in print?
    Here’s what Howard said, which I suspect is pretty basic “mother’s milk” to many of us, but may be anathema to others…

    “The Word and Holy Spirit”
    But beyond Confession, Catechism, or Creed, the Reformed faith is rooted finally in the divine activity of Word and Holy Spirit in human life. Confession, Catechism, and Creed are nothing but the expression of this greatest reality, and they cannot live if it is not present. The final authority in the Reformed faith is Holy Scripture, the living Word of God, spoken to every man through the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit taking the Word of God and making it real and actual has always been and will always be the authentic wellspring of real Reformed faith.

    “Scripture and Spirit”

    Thus we come in our Reformed faith to the Bible, but not to the Bible as simply a textbook of divine truths, but to the Bible as the living Word of God, made alive for us by the Holy Spirit. In our reformed faith, Scripture and spirit can never be separated. Years ago the venerable Dr. John Henry Livingston, the real father of our Reformed Church in America, pointed this out.
    ‘Never separate the Word and the Spirit of the
    Lord. If the Word is dethroned from its
    supremacy, you open the door to the wildest
    enthusiasm, and have nothing left whereby to
    try the spirits, whether they be of God. If
    you exclude the Spirit, you make formalists,
    and the Church becomes an Ezekiel’s valley of
    dry bones.’

    (pp. 23-24)

    Thus — I wonder, at times, if the issue is deeper than fundamentalism/biblicism, or any other of the isms; if what lies beneath our arguments is differing pneumatologies.

    If the current work of the Spirit is truncated to personal piety and ‘passion’, then the Spirit’s work regarding vis a vis the Scriptures can fairly well be limited to inspiration, and the Word, though powerful, is for all intents and purposes, a dead word that is left only to be applied to the present context.

    If, on the other hand, the Spirit illuminates the Scriptures (if the text has a life in front of it as well as behind it) by ‘inner testimony’,
    -if there is an inter-subjective transaction in which Jesus’ question “What is truth” finds response,
    -if the Word is alive and active,
    then we have springs of living water welling up from within….

  2. Paul,
    Nice Livingston quote!
    Yes, the hermeneutic of ‘autopistis’ is closely related to the issue of the either/or of christo-pneumatology/pneumachristology. In this week before Sunday Trinitatis that is a worthwhile issue to ponder, always taking into account that such issues fully blossom only after the wind of Pentecost is allowd to blow where it wills…
    For, even if we discard the positivistic ‘axio’ line of thought as a sterile dialectic, we are still left with what seems yet another sort of ‘duality.’ However, this is not an object/subject sort of entity, but one of two different sorts of ontologies: one is the ‘regular’ and the other is the ‘dynamic’ (even if it is latent). They are two aspects of everything, for any point MUST have an orientation in order to ‘exist.’
    In classical speech we do not speak of the relationship between two things as a ‘something’ that has its ‘own’ ontology. In modern physics a particular matrix of constitutive elements is as important as the constitutive elements themselves, if not more so.
    My dissertation-in-progress is about precisely
    that very issue of two-foldness in (classical) systematic theology as well as the role matrix/tensor notions play in more modern hermeneutics of doctrine (even if theologians so not use that terminology, but grasp at ‘social’ trinities, and some such).
    Your ‘living water’ link to ‘inter-subjectivity’ is right on the mark. However, we live in a culture that lives by bottled water….
    Have a playful Trinity Sunday!

  3. Dear Okke,

    Could you explain the difference between christo-pneumatology and pneumachristology. . . .or point to a reference source or two that I can look into?


    Josh Bode

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