Christian Epistemology

Response to Modern Epistemology in Christian Philosophy

Introduction 

Modernist philosophy clashes with the Christian faith. This essay will set forth a particularly Christian doctrine of the kowledge of God, and thereby, all reality.  The Christian must have faith in the Bible as the Authoritative interpretation of reality. Nevertheless, many Christian scholars have attempted to integrate modernist presupositions into the Christain faith, and thereby hold self contradicting views of reality. Therefore this essay will show the need for a particularly Christian doctrine of knowledge.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy defined Modern Foundationalism as “The theory that knowledge of the world rests on a foundation of indubitable beliefs from which further propositions can be inferred.”[1] Rene Descartes (d. 1650) originated this epistemological theory. His break from the medieval thought was the intrinsic authority of the autonomous man rather than the extrinsic authority of Scripture to interpret reality.

The Biola Talbot Seminary teaches a form of modernist foundationalism. Norman Geisler is the intellectual wellspring of this foundationalism school. In To Everyone an Answer, students of Geisler offer a detailed foundational apologetic for the Christian faith.[2] They do so in honor of and with Geisler’s moderate foundationalist epistemology.[3]

The epistemology is decidedly modernistic. What makes it modern is the presupposition that faith is preceded by reasons and evidence. There are at least some beliefs within a system of philosophy independently attested to by external criteria. Evidences attest to foundational beliefs. One infers from these foundations a coherent philosophy.[4] This differs from classical foundationalism because it is “too ambitious.” They turn to a more “modest” foundationalism, which uses various types of evidence to ground beliefs, rather than a few logically indubitable beliefs.[5]

Thesis

This essay will argue that faith in the Christian religion is the general disposition of true knowledge. The Biola school’s epistemology does not break away from Descartes’ autonomous authority to interpret realty, and thus it is more modern than Christian. Does modern foundationalism fit with Christianity? This essay answers, no.

Method

This essay will proceed to demonstrate in the first section the difference between modernist and Christian views of faith and reason, and justification of beliefs. Their view is that reason precedes faith, and reason justifies beliefs independently of personal trust in a metaphysical pattern. Part two of this essay will demonstrate that Christianity apposes this epistemology. It will demonstrate that the Biola school sides with modernism in the area of justifying or grounding truth claims by intrinsic autonomous means.

Part 1: Demonstration of the Thesis

1. Faith and Reasons

This is a battle over the question: do metaphysical presuppositions affect the reasons one finds acceptable? Can we separate the what of metaphysics from the how of epistemology. One cannot separate inquiry from presupposing realities.

The Biola school argues that reason precedes faith in order. Faith is a trust in a personal authority or pattern of beliefs. Authorities may contradict one another, so other means must ground beliefs than appeals to authority. They seek to reason that they may believe. They do not claim that all beliefs are indubitable, but that the criteria for examining truth claims are unbiased.

The most common way they use reason to justify is the law of non-contradiction. If a belief can be demonstrated as wrong, then something one can know indubitably as wrong. This is a self-evident belief.[6] There are two other kinds of reasons for justified belief. Firstly, incorrigible beliefs are those that are uncorrectable because they rely upon direct acquaintance.  Secondly, the senses evidence things to be the case. These are the basic methods the Biola school follows to ground beliefs. From these grounded beliefs, they infer the rest of their system.

This essay argues that faith precedes reason. It rejects that Christian reason can function rightly disjoined from the Christian faith. All reason presupposes knowledge of ultimate reality.  One must begin to know ultimate reality by faith in Scripture, because God is inscrutable to finitely conditioned beings.

Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury argued that God is inaccessible. In his struggle to understand God he wrote,

“He pants to see thee, and thy face is too far for him. He longs to come to thee, and thy dwelling place is inaccessible.  He is eager to find thee, and knows not thy place. He desires to seek thee, and does not know thy face. Finally, I was created to see thee, and not yet have I done that for which is was made.”[7]

He thus points to the inscrutability of God as the problem of knowledge. Humans are temporally conditioned.

Dr. Michael Horton argues for the doctrine of analogy as God makes Himself known by Scripture. Human knowledge therefore is not equivocal (double minded) nor univocal (rationalism), but analogical to Gods. Revelation is necessary because man is temporally and materially conditioned. Man can never disconnect his questions about God from Scripture. Man cannot know an infinite God univocally nor even equivocally without being that God, because that infinite ability would indeed make them God. God comes down and summons man to Covenant with Him.[8]

 To know things as God knows them is impossible, thus we need accommodated revelation. The finite cannot know the infinite, inscrutable, wise God.  That God is inscrutable is evident in Romans 11:33-36,

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  (34)  “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”  (35)  “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”  (36)  For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

Scripture alone grounds foundational belief about God, because God otherwise is hidden. This sets the stage for faith preceding reason. Human knowledge is not autonomous. All reason presupposes the Biblical faith.

Anselm went on to show that faith precedes reason.

“I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity , for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, That unless I believed I would not understand.”[9]

He denied that, “I reason that I may believe.” Because God is inaccessible, unless one believes in the God of the Bible then he cannot understand.

This also reveals that man has faith in something no matter what. For the Christian, that faith submits to the God of the Bible’s interpretation of reality. For the modernist, autonomous man is the ground of true beliefs. Faith in a pattern is unavoidable. The claim that logical criteria are unbiased is to presuppose a different foundational authority than Scripture.

The BIOLA school argues in the modernist vein. Therefore, they are inconsistent in their statement of Christian theism, and simultaneous teaching an epistemology which would never bring them to theism. This is because it begins inquiry on the foundation of the autonomy of reason. They do not recognize that this authority is in antithesis to Biblical authority.

This is because they “reason that they may understand.” They attempt to reason from finite foundations to believe in the inscrutable God. They do not account for Special Revelation. The only condition that makes God knowable is that God condescends to man. Man must therefore have faith in the revelation of God in scripture and hold all reason to that standard. The Biola school suffers a split personality. It is an evangelical seminary with modernist epistemology.

Esther Meek argued that before a thinker inducts reality he already has submitted to a metaphysical pattern in mind. She builds her epistemology off the Reformed theologians Cornelius Van Til and John Frame and secularist Michael Polanyi.[10] She wrote,

“Centuries of Western philosophy have lead to our thinking that for knowledge to be objective and certain, the personal responsibility of the knower must be minimized to the point of elimination… More recently, we have recognized that human involvement cannot be eliminated from our truth claims.”[11]

Meek demonstrated the modernist and late modernist turn from Cartesian foundationalism.  In light of the metaphysic preceding inquiry, faith may be defined as a submission to a metaphysical pattern.  The notion, “reason that we may understand,” is backwards. She said, “In a profound and curious way, the pattern comes first… in priority.”[12] She demonstrated that Christian Theism involves the same sort of “faith seeking understanding.” She said, “To know the God of the Bible is to know a being who claims supreme authority over all life… For, to know God is to submit to Him.”[13]

2. What Justifies?

This is a battle over the question: does Scripture or reason justify a belief as true? It has been demonstrated above that the Biola school uses reason as the foundational anchor for their philosophical system. They argue that there are external realities that corroborate their foundational doctrines (Scripture, the Resurrection, etc). The problem of God’s inscrutability refutes this type of inquiry, but the question remains. What grounds a belief? The Bible answers this: because God’s word lisps to man, rather than man climbing to the mind of God. The inscrutable God made himself known, so man may know God on these terms. Scripture is not just evidence; it is the authoritative interpretation of reality.   

John Calvin argued that Scripture alone has the authority to ground beliefs because God is wholly other, and because man is sinful and tends to seek other interpreters. Man naturally asks with the serpent, “Did God really say?”

““What help is it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do? Rather, our knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence; secondly, with it as our guide and teacher, we should learn to seek every good from him, and, having received it, to credit it to his account, For how can the thought of God penetrate your mind without your realizing immediately that, since you are his handiwork, you have been made over and bound to his command by right of creation, that you owe your life to him? — that whatever you undertake, whatever you do, ought to be ascribed to him? If this be so, it now assuredly follows that your life is wickedly corrupt unless it be disposed to his service, seeing that his will ought for us to be the law by which we live. Again, you cannot behold him clearly unless you acknowledge him to be the fountainhead and source of every good. From this too would arise the desire to cleave to him and trust in him, but for the fact that man’s depravity seduces his mind from rightly seeking him.[14]

One can hear Anselm echo in Calvin. Calvin says that is follows from God’s active penetrating, as fountainhead of knowledge, that man is not his own. Man is not an autonomous sovereign who can strip nature bare and force her to tell her secrets. God is the “teacher,” “fountainhead,” and “source” of truth.

Greg L. Bahnsen, argued that “Epistemology necessarily presupposes metaphysics.”[15] He demonstrated that the empirical scientific method was not even possible without first presupposing metaphysical reality. He argued that one’s metaphysical faith is necessary for reasoning. It is a “foundation” or “framework” for reasoning. He argued that every epistemology has a metaphysical starting point. He gave four options for his opponent. They may admit to having no ground, argue for an external standard (which would contradict the previously held ultimate standard), argue for in infinite regress, or he may plead an ultimate standard, Scripture’s revealed pattern of reality.[16] In trying to avoid a standard, the opponent clamors for a standard.

Albert Einstein corroborated this as his experience in scientific research. He said, “Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from the experience and ends with it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality.”[17] Einstein could not reconcile the scientific method and the way he actually came to know things. According to a historian of philosophy, “when Reichenbach asked Einstein how he discovered the theory of relativity, Einstein replied that he arrived at his conclusions because of his strong conviction of the harmony of the universe.”[18] Submission to, or faith in, a metaphysical pattern is unavoidable.

“Faith seeking understanding” is a universal unavoidable experience. Faith is submitted to an authority. Even if one denies this assertion he has already borrowed metaphysical capitol to deny a truth claim, because the very nature of knowledge is in question. Christianity finds its point of reference in the highest authority. Christian epistemology looks to scripture alone as God’s authoritative interpretation of reality. The Westminster Confession of Faith confesses the Christian faith,

“In His sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon creatures, so as nothing in him is contingent or uncertain. He is most holy in counsels, in all His works, and in all His commandments.”[19]

Scripture testifies to this, “Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.” (Psalm 147:5).  “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” (Rom 7:12).  “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counselor?” (Rom 11:33-34).  

Part 2: Defense of the Thesis

Faith and Reason:

William Lane Craig argues, “In the absence of positive evidence for Christian truth claims, faith is irrational for a normally functioning adult.”[20] This is the “understanding seeking to believe” epistemology.

Geisler argued that “faith seeking understanding” confuses categories of faith and knowledge. Therefore “verification demands one looks before he leaps.” He argued,

“There is a difference between the basis of believing that there is a God and believing in a God. One needs evidence to know that there is a God there, but he needs faith to commit himself to the God which that evidence indicates is really there.”[21]

Geisler differentiated religious and intellectual belief.

Thomas and Richard Howe demonstrate the difference in more detail. They show three different types of relating faith to reason. These are faith absent reason, faith against reason, and faith and reason. He sides with Reason prior faith. They meant a sequential not consequential relationship between faith and reason.  They wrote,

“Reason prior faith. Reason precedes faith in that it is able to demonstrate the preamble of faith, such as God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, and that the Word of God is trustworthy. But reason does not produce faith… Faith involves will (freedom) and reason does not coerce the will… Remember, faith in God is a personal trust in him.”[22]

Faith is not regarded as a metaphysical pattern to which one submits. Faith is a trust in a person (in Geisler’s words, an authority). This is the authoritarian way of verification. A foundational edifice may be built by reason, but the thing that convinces on to trust is an authority. Faith is personal. Reason is impersonal.

This essay argues that one cannot avoid submitting to an authority. We believe not in faith absent, or against reason; we believe in faith affecting reason. Anything one thinks submits to metaphysical patterns.

The Howes argued from Matthew 22: 36-37 that

“Though there are many things about God that are beyond our capacity to reason about, there are many things about God that are within our grasp, like reasons the Bible gives for trusting God for our salvation. In fact, Jesus told us to Love God with all our minds.”[23]

This does not help their argument. This uses the authoritative criteria to prove a system of reason prior to faith. This is precisely the issue at hand. One cannot “love the Lord with all [the] mind” without presupposing that reality. Faith in an authority is unavoidable.  One cannot justify a belief without first presupposing an authoritative interpretation of reality. Christian epistemology presupposes the Biblical perspicuous faith to be this authoritative interpretation.  

What Justifies:

Geisler doubts Descartes’ indubitable cogito. He said, “Just because some knowledge claims can be justified, however, does not guarantee that all claims are genuine.”[24] He developed a more moderate foundationalism.[25] Geisler and Feinberg demonstrated five “criteria” for validating beliefs. These are “Faith or authoritarianism, subjectivism, rationalism, empiricism, and pragmatism.” He calls faith the most common type of justification because “we begin learning by accepting the beliefs of our family.”[26] This is taking things to be true at face value.

He argues that authority is not a valid criterion for justification because authorities conflict. An authority may have a piece of knowledge, but the way of evaluating them is by “empirical” or “rational” means.[27] He separates the authority criteria to the realm of faith in metaphysical truth, and the free will decision to believe. This is apart from reason.[28]

This is moderate foundationalism. Douglas Gievett demonstrated the verification principle as an external witness to the truth of foundational beliefs. This moderate foundationalism does not look for a single indubitable belief out of which a comprehensive philosophy may be reached. Beliefs,

“Need not be certain, they need not be self justifying, and the need not be justificationally isolated from surrounding beliefs within the same noetic structure. A belief is foundationally justified if its justification is not exclusively grounded in its relations to other elements within a belief system, if something other than its relations to other beliefs confers justification upon the belief.”[29]

The Geisler school of moderate foundationalism advanced many such verifications.[30]

Metaphysics are unavoidable patterns utilized in epistemological inquiry. The question is: who has the right pattern? This pattern is submitted to as an authoritative interpretation of reality. This essay seeks to demonstrate that Scripture is the authoritative interpretation of truth. This essay argues that the Trinitarian Covenantal theology of the Bible is the only legitimate pattern. All other criteria Geisler advanced are only possible by borrowed capitol of this pattern.

Cornelius Van Til argued that Christianity is a “representational system” of reality, and that happily finds itself “in accord with what Scripture teaches.” He pointed out that the Trinity of Scripture was taught on the “authority” of Christ. He goes further,

“But this being the case, we at the same time realize that it is the Biblical position alone that can offer an intelligent foundation for the exercise of all human functions.”[31]

Van Til did not deny the use of other criteria to make sense of the Biblical record, but that those very criteria are properly justified by the Bible’s pattern of reality.

Conclusion

The authority of the Bible is a basic presupposition of the Christian faith. The Bible does not just serve as evidence, but it is the authoritative interpretation of reality. Thus, the essay agrees with Van Til,

“I was now convinced that only if one begins with the self identifying Christ of Reformation theology, can one bring the ‘facts’ of the space-time world into intelligible relation to the ‘laws’ of this world.”

Scripture demands intellectual submission to that interpretation. It demands the reader to believe the projected drama as foundational for all other inquiry. The Biola school sides with modernism by apposing this external authority, Sacred Scripture. Does moderate foundationalism fit Christianity? The two appose one another from the start because one seeks to “believe by reason,” and the other to “believe to understand.”

Bibliography

Anselm of Canterbury, St Anselm Proslogium Monologium: an Apendix in behalf of the fool Gaunilion, and Cur De Homo Trans. Sidney Norton Deane (Chicago, IL: Open Court Poblishing, 1935)

Bahnsen, Greg L. Pushing the Antithesis (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007)

Burge Ted Science and the Bible (Philadelphia PA: Templeton Press, 2005),

Calvin, John The Institutes of the Christian Religion Trans Ford Lewis Battles, Ed John T McNiell, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004)

Craig, William Lane To everyone An Answer eds. Beckwith, Craig, Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004),

Dahms, John V How Reliable is Logic JETS 21/4 (December 1978) 369-380

 

——————–A Trinitarian Epistemology Defended, JETS

22/2 (June 1979) 133-148 ,

Einstein, Albert “Essays in Science” Cited in, Philosophy and the modern World, ed. Albert William Levi Vol 14,

Geisler, Norman L. Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974)

______________William E. Nix, Form God to Us (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1974)  

______________ Feinburg, Paul D. Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980)

______________Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991)

Geivett, Douglas “Is God a Story” Christianity and the Postmodern Turn ed. Myron B Penner, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005)

Horton, Michael Lord and Servant (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004) 14

McDowell, Josh Evidence for Christianity (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), Prophecy Fact or Fiction, (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1981),

Meek, Esther Longing to Know (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003)

Moreland, J.P.  DeWeese, Garrett Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2005) 67

Polanyi Michael, “Transcendence and Self-Transcendence” Soundings 53: 1 (Spring 1970): 88-94

Ramm, Bernard The Christian View of the Science and the Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: WMB Eerdmans, 1954)

Rushdooney, R.J The Word of Flux (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1965)

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Honderich, Ted (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Westminster Confession of Faith (Lawrenceville, GA: CEP Books, 2007)

Van Til, Cornelius, In Defense of the Faith Vol II: A Survey of Christian Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R)


[1] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Honderich, Ted (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) 288

[2] Craig, William Lane, J.P. Moreland, Francis Beckwith, To Everyone an Answer (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004)

[3] McDowell, Josh, To Everyone and Answer, 9-11

[4] Gievett, Douglas “Is God a Story” in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn ed. Myron B Penner, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006) 48

[5] Moreland, DeWeese, Phil Made Slightly Less Difficult 66

[6] This is evident in the debate between John V. Dahms and Norman Geisler. In this debate, Dahms argued that the laws of logic were not the end all for inquiry. The example he gave was that the Father sent the Son to die on Calvary even though He loved him. Geisler responded that Dahms was teaching heresy because God cannot contradict himself. Here, Geisler holds the law of non-contradiction to be ontologically the source of truth, and God is subordinate to it Dahms, A Trinitarian Epistemology Defended, JETS

22/2 (June 1979) 133-148 , John V Dahms, How Reliable is Logic JETS 21/4 (December 1978) 369-380

[7] Anselm, “Proslogium in St Anselm Proslogium Monologium: an Apendix in behalf of the fool Gaunilion, and Cur De Homo Trans. Sidney Norton Deane (Chicago, IL: Open Court Poblishing, 1935) 3. I was directed to this from R.J Rushdooney, The Word of Flux (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1965) 36

[8] Michael Horton, Lord and Servant (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004) 14

[9] Anselm, “Proslogium” 6,

[10] Polanyi Michael, “Transcendence and Self-Transcendence” Soundings 53: 1 (Spring 1970): 88-94 is a good staring place to see how philosophy effects scientific conclusions. 

[11] Meek, Esther Longing to Know (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003) 147 

[12] Meek, 149

[13] Meek, 150

[14] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion Trans Ford Lewis Battles, Ed John T McNiell, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004) 1.2.2

[15] Greg L. Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007) 119

[16] Bahnsen, 122 

[17] Albert Einstein, “Essays in Science” Cited in, Philosophy and the modern World, ed.Levi Vol 14, p. 262. this was directed to me by Rushdoony, The Word of Flux, 40

[18] Rushdoony, The Word of Flux, 40

[19] Westminster Confession of Faith (Lawrenceville, GA: CEP Books, 2007) 2.2 

[20] William Lane Craig “Faith, Reason and the Necessity of Apologetics ” To Everyone an Answer, 19

[21] Geisler, Norman L. Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974) 73-74

[22] Howe, Richard, and Thomas Howe “Faith and Reason” To Everyone an Answer 35

[23] Howe “Faith and Reason” To Everyone an Answer 32

[24] Geisler, Feinberg,, 103

[25] Geisler, Norman, Feinburg, Paul D. Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980) 91-92

[26] Geisler, Feinberg, 104

[27] Geisler, Feinberg, 105

[28] Norm Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991) 58

[29] Douglas Geivett, “Is God a Story” Christianity and the Postmodern Turn ed. Myron B Penner, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005) 49, This is also the method described in Moreland, J.P.  DeWeese, Garrett Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2005) 67

[30] See for example, William Lane Craig, To everyone An Answer eds. Beckwith, Craig, Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), Ted Burge Science and the Bible (Philadelphia PA: Templeton Press, 2005), Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of the Science and the Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: WMB Eerdmans, 1954) Josh McDowell, Evidence for Christianity (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), Prophecy Fact or Fiction, (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1981), Norman L. Geisler, William E. Nix, Form God to Us (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1974) chapter 5 utilizes these different forms of verification to form arguments for the reliability of the Bible. He does not use the “authoritative” criteria.  

[31] Van Til, Cornelius, In Defense of the Faith Vol II: A Survey of Christian Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R) 97

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