Last night we continued our look into how we as Christians justify our claim to know things, especially things about God. Here are the notes:
A Christian Epistemology, Part 2: How do we know things?
First, a little recap. Here are the questions we’re addressing: How can Christians claim to really know God? How can they claim to have a true knowledge of God, especially one that is more accurate than other concepts of God? How can we really know anything? Or maybe, how can we really know anything except by direct experience?
There are ar least five assumptions behind questions like these, and were using these studies to address and examine them.
The assumptions behind all these questions:
- That the source of our knowledge is within—what we can figure out with our own brains. That our brains are limited, and that these limits are the limits of our knowledge.
- That if God exists, he could not give, or has not given, or would not give, information about Himself and the world. (…That God doesn’t exist in any meaningful way.) There has been no authoritative information given about the world or about God.
- That if a being such as God did give information, we could not understand it in any more than some partial, vague way. In other words, if God spoke, He would be unable to communicate truly and accurately to the minds that He made. He would be limited by our minds. So He can make us, but not communicate to us.
- That in order to anything meaningfully, we must know exhaustively. Since we can’t know everything about God, we can’t claim to know anything about God.
- Since no one is there to explain the world to us, it is up to us to figure it all out using our minds. We do this by observing objects and analyzing data. In other words, knowledge is impersonal.
Last night we specifically examined assumptions #1-3 by thinking about revelation.
Assumption #1: If #5 is true, then # 1 is true.
Is it true that our only source of knowledge is what we generate by experience of gathering data and interpreting it? (In other words, is Assumption #5 true?) If that were the case, then assumption #1 would be correct—and our knowledge would be limited by the limits of our own mind.
But if it’s true (as we saw last week) that there is more to the universe than impersonal facts for our mind to analyze, that if—as the Bible explains—all the facts in the universe are put in place by Someone who is behind it all, then another possibility is raised. Because if this Being, who possess all knowledge, decided to communicate to us, then we would have access to knowledge which our minds could otherwise never know.
This raises more questions, which need to be answered by people making assumptions 2 and 3.
Assumption #2: Do we have any reason for assuming…
- …that God is unable to give us information? This seems unlikely if He can create us (our minds.)
- …that God unwilling to give us information? This is possible, but why should we assume this is the case? Is it really likely that God would make us, and then refuse to speak to us?
- …that God simply hasn’t given such information? This also may be the case, if He was unwilling. But again, why should we assume this to be true? Can anyone prove that the Creator has not given us any information about Himself, ourselves, or our universe?
This is the main assumption made by people, especially in academic settings, if they are willing to grant that God exists. So you get discussions that proceed along the lines of: “You think you’re right about God, the Muslims think they’re right about God, and the Hindus think they’re right. Let’s just admit that we are all partially right and partially wrong. No one has the whole story.”
But within assumption #2 there’s another assumption at work: That if more than one person thinks they’re right about something, then they can’t all be right. But we wouldn’t see it this way in other contexts. Imagine a bank where the workers discover that someone has smuggled counterfeit bills into the vault. The fake bills are filling the banks cash drawers. The branch is shut down while the employees try to find which bills are fake and which are true. What they discover is that there are many kinds of counterfeits. They find dozens of versions of 20’s and 100’s alone. Quickly, arguments form as to which bills are authentic. Several different groups of employees form around certain bills. Each group claims that they have the correct bills, and they can list all the reasons why their bills are the real bills.
Now, if we were to step in to the situation, we would understand a few things immediately.
- It is not possible for every group to be right. They have different bills. The disagreement is real.
- It is possible that they are all wrong. This would be the case if either they happened to not have any true bills in the branch (in other words, real bills exist, they just don’t have any) or if, in fact, money isn’t real, and they are deceived about there being a monetary economy, in other words, there is no such thing as authentic currency at all. But we know that, in our nation at least, the second option is not the case, so we would only need to discern if there were any real bills in the branch, and identify them.
- Since there was so much disagreement among people, what would be needed would be an outside source of information. This could come from a person, say, a representative of the U.S. Mint, who was an authority on the subject, maybe even carrying a copy of real currency. This could also come from a book—say, if one of the branch employees found a U.S. Mint “Guide to Identifying Authentic Currency.”
But notice, at no time in the story would we simply assume that since people are in disagreement, and fervently believe that opposing views are true—that it follows that none of them can be right. In other words, the presence of disagreement doesn’t negate the possibility of someone being right, and of a real bill existing. It just means we have to do our homework. So to apply this to our discussion—unless you assume there is no God who truly exists, then you have to grant that, unless He has hidden Himself and refused to speak, it is at least possible for someone to know what He has said, and therefore to be right about who He is.
Assumption #3: Why should we assume that a being Who could create our minds couldn’t also communicate clearly to us, in a way we could understand?
The game changer for Christians is this: revelation. That is, we have come to see that even though our minds are limited, and we can only reach so high with them, God has pierced down into our world with information. This is possible because He made our minds, and made us in His image. In other words, He made us expressly for the purpose of communicating to us. (See Genesis 1:3, 1:26-30, 2:16-17.)
So, How has He communicated? In Three main ways:
Psalm 19:1-6 – God Communicates in Nature.
- He made every physical thing to show: Glory, Power & Authority (Rom 1), Care (Gen 1)
- For more on this, check out Job 38-41, Psalm 104.
- Nature is revelation: personal, intentional, communicative.
Psalm 19:7-14 – God Communicates in His Word.
The spoken and written word of God is different than nature because it is propositional—that is, it communicates information in the form of definite statements. It’s the difference between the communication of a facial expression and the communication of a sentence. In short, nature must be interpreted, but propositional revelation is interpretive. But there’s more. The Bible says that it is only this Word revelation that can save us. Here in Psalm 19 we see that the word does these things: Turns us back to God, makes us wise (v.7), brings us joy, enlightens us (v.8), keeps us in the pathway of God’s blessing (v.11), helps us understand our errors (v.12-13), and keeps us in general agreement with God (v.14). See Psalm 119:11, 25, 104; Romans 10:8-18, Luke 24:46-47, for more to think about along these lines.
Hebrews 1:1-2; John 1:1-4 & 14; 1 John 1:1-2 – God Communicated in Christ
The final and fullest revelation of God works together with both nature (He took on flesh and came into our world) and the written word (He fulfilled prophecy and is completing the history recorded in it) to give the fullest expression of Who God is and how we may be reconnected to Him. God’s message is a Man, His life, His character, His work, His message. This s good news! What does God communicate in Christ? Grace and Truth! (John 1:18, 29) Love!
Thus God has communicated to us in our context (the universes and our planet) in a book (the Bible) and in a person (Christ). So our knowledge is not limited solely to what our minds can analyze from data, but we have open to us everything our Creator has communicated in these three ways. So the possibility of real understanding and knowledge about God, and much more, exists.