A priories are the foundation of what comes later. They are the starting point of your argument. They are not formed from evidence or facts, but are choices. They form the foundation on how evidence and facts are interpreted. In a sense, they are the prejudice, the weight, the skew we give to what we see and understand. They influence everything: every thought, deduction, argument, and conclusion.
Dictionaries call a priories:
Made before or without examination; not supported by factual study. (The Free Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary)
Presumptive: being formed beforehand. (The Miriam Webster Dictionary)
Unexamined a priories are a problem. Scientists like to tell themselves they are neutral, without bias, observing only the evidence of the physical universe, but most of them start with a fundamental a priori that says not God and not spiritual, which affects how they see everything. For example, if the possibility of design might be evident in the information in front of them, they will not see it because design means there is a designer and that goes against their a priori. So they argue it away, seeking some random process (e.g. chaos theory) to explain the evidence, any process that does not call their a priori into question.
Christians and theologians are the same. We all start with a priories. We all have fundamental views of how we see God and man, apart from any biblical evidence (remember, a priories are pre-factual). Our a priories determine, to a very large degree, how we interpret the Scriptures we read and how we form our doctrine and arguments from those scriptures.
Within biblical study, there are two basic a priories: God and man. As I have looked at the history of the Church and its theology, those have been the two starting points for almost every position. Traditionally, those starting with God follow in the footsteps of Augustine and those starting with man follow in the footsteps of Pelagius, since they were the first to build extensive arguments around their a priories.
The distinctive of those positions tend to revolve around the sovereignty of God and the choice of man. God’s sovereignty leads to arguments for predestination and man’s choice leads to arguments for the importance of man’s individual choice and against predestination. The arguments for each point of view (one way of looking at a priories is as a point of view, since point of views come from where you are standing, e.g. your starting point) use the same set of scriptures but interpret them differently. That difference comes from one place, their a priori, not surprisingly from the scriptures themselves.
Because of that difference, most discussions of text and chains of reasoning and deductive understanding produce only point and counterpoint, but no or very little change in either party. That is because they are not arguing the real difference in their position, their a priories.
A priori discussions (from long experience) are very difficult. They call into question the very essence of who we are, striking at the heart of every thought, understanding, and position we have taken, the superstructure that makes up our life, who we see ourselves to be.
Personally, I have had several a priori shifts in my life. The first was when I became a Christian. Christ and the Bible became the central tenants of my life (see my post on Sola Scriptura to better understand that shift). The whole foundation of my life shifted.
The second was several years later when I shifted from a man-myself-my choice-centered view of Christianity to God as sovereign as my Christian a priori. I surprised myself, because up to that point I had thought I had a God-centered view of everything. However, due to a number of reasons, but mostly focusing on a crisis precipitated around the Coplin-Hagin-name it-claim it view so prevalent in the late 70’s, early 80’s, I began examining my own a priories and began peeling back the layers of how and why I believed what I did.
I considered this investigation to be God’s answer to the gift I had originally asked for as a new Christian, the gift of discernment. It took a while for that gift to be applied to my fundamental thinking, but I believe that it was discernment that both prompted and allowed me to pry so deeply into my thinking, to examine the starting points of my beliefs.
I can honestly say, from over thirty years of Christian experience, much of that in teaching and discipleship, that very few people walk that path. It is a painful, wrenching experience that gets harder as time goes on. It disrupted my whole life, made me in many ways an outcast in my own Christian circle, and is still reverberating in everything I think, say, write, and do. Most people remain in the a priories they either start with or settled into early in their Christian life. However, even if you do not change your view, it is useful to understand why you see things the way you do.
I need to say one thing in closing; I do not consider those who hold the position opposite mine as less Christian than myself. If pushed to categorize, I would argue that on the sure foundation of Christ, God will identify the wood, hay, and stubble we use to construct our edifices of understanding and in the end they will be burnt away. What I believe I have done, is to dismantle one such edifice myself, and begin rebuilding with gold and silver. In the end, God will decide what is what. But, in no way do I question their foundation, Christ, only the what they have built on Him.
May God grant you the grace and courage to examine your own a priories and may you always build on the sure foundation of Christ with materials that survive the fire of Gods examination. Amen.