A Biblical Epistemology?

Is there such thing as a “biblical epistemology”? Van Tilian presuppositionalists are among those who insist there is. Christian philosophers in general, however, tend to be skeptical of the idea. They’ll suggest that it makes no more sense to say there is a biblical theory of knowledge than to say there is a biblical theory of gravity. After all, the Bible is no more a philosophy textbook than a science textbook. Right?

It’s certainly true that the Bible doesn’t set forth an epistemology in the traditional sense. It doesn’t seek to address questions like, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for S’s knowing that p?” or “How can we refute Descartes’ Demon and other skeptical challenges?” Such omissions are probably for the best. More pages spent on those matters might have meant less pages spent on who God is and how we can get right with Him — which are, after all, matters of greater concern to the bulk of the human race.

Nevertheless, it is flat-out false to claim that the Bible contains little of interest to epistemologists. Scripture has plenty to say about the subjects, objects, nature, and scope of human knowledge. Much of what it teaches bears significantly on the sort of issues debated by epistemologists. The following does not pretend to be an exhaustive list, but I suggest that at least the following claims are either stated, implied, or presupposed in the Bible:

  1. God is a knower and God’s knowledge includes ‘propositional’ knowledge. (Gen. 3:5; Luke 16:15; 1 Cor. 3:20)
  2. God created all other knowers. (Gen. 1:1; Rev. 4:11)
  3. We can obtain knowledge of God. (Jer. 31:34; John 14:7)
  4. In fact, everyone has knowledge of God in a limited sense, even though that knowledge may be suppressed. (Rom. 1:18-23)
  5. Knowledge of God is one of the most important goals of human life. (Jer. 31:34; John 17:3; Acts 17:24)
  6. What a person can know about God, and about other closely related matters, depends in large measure on their spiritual state. (Ps. 82:5; Luke 10:21; Rom. 1:21; 1 Cor. 2:11-16; Eph. 4:17-18)
  7. Our knowledge of God is necessarily limited. (Job 36:26; Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33)
  8. God’s Word is a higher epistemic authority than human reason or intuition. (Prov. 3:5; Isa. 8:20; Jer. 23:29; John 10:35; 1 Cor. 1:25; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 1:23-25)
  9. One can know with a high degree of confidence that the message of the gospel is true. (Luke 1:4; Acts 2:36; Acts 17:31)
  10. People of all levels of intellectual sophistication can have a saving knowledge of God and Jesus Christ. (Deut. 29:29; Luke 10:21; 1 Cor. 1:26-28)
  11. There are objective truths: truths that are independent of human opinions and feelings. (Exod. 20:16; Prov. 12:17; John 8:44; 17:17; 19:35; Gal. 2:14; 2 Cor. 10:5)
  12. There are culture-transcending truths that can be known by people from all cultures; not all knowledge is culture-relative. (Ezek. 38:23; 39:7; John 17:23; Acts 11:20; 19:10; 20:21; Rom. 15:8-13; 16:26)
  13. There is a significant ethical dimension to human belief and knowledge. (Prov. 1:7; Matt. 22:36-38; Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 10:31)
  14. One can be morally culpable for failing to hold certain beliefs. (John 16:9; 2 Thess. 2:12; Heb. 3:19; 1 John 5:10)
  15. It is possible to know some truths via sense experience. (Gen. 46:30; Luke 21:20, 30; John 3:11; 19:35)
  16. It is possible to know some truths apart from sense experience. (Matt. 16:16-17; Luke 5:22)
  17. It is possible to know some truths by direct divine revelation, apart from natural means. (Gen. 46:2-4; Ezek. 1:1; Dan. 7:1; Matt. 16:16-17; Rev. 1:9-11)
  18. It is possible to know moral truths. (Isa. 51:7; Rom. 7:1)
  19. It is possible to know future contingents. (Matt. 20:17-19; Mark 13:22-23; Luke 22:34; John 6:64)
  20. Inductive knowledge based on sense experience is commonplace. (Matt. 16:1-3; 24:32)
  21. Human testimony is an important source of knowledge. (Numbers 35:30; Luke 1:2; John 21:24)
  22. At least some human knowledge is not dependent on human embodiment. (Luke 16:25; 23:42-43; Rev. 6:9-11)
  23. Arguments a fortiori are a good form of reasoning. (Luke 11:13; 12:24; Rom. 11:12)
  24. There is substantial continuity between divine reasoning and human reasoning. (Isa. 1:18)
  25. It is possible and worthwhile for believers to reason with unbelievers about God, Jesus Christ, etc. (Acts 17:2; 17:16-34; 18:4; 18:19; 19:8-9)

Some of these claims provide support for particular epistemological theories, while others tend to rule out particular epistemological theories. For example: claims 16 and 17 rule out narrow empiricist theories of knowledge; claims 11 and 12 contradict many postmodernist epistemologies; and claims 9 and 10 raise doubts about strongly internalist theories of knowledge (theories that require S to have a cognitive awareness of the justifying grounds for S’s knowledge).

It therefore seems to me that numerous biblical affirmations carry significance for our understanding of human knowledge. If the Bible is God’s Word, and true in all it teaches, it follows that the Bible can give us substantial guidance about which theories of knowledge, truth, epistemic warrant, rationality, etc., are likely to be true (or false) even though it doesn’t answer all the important questions considered by epistemologists. (If it did answer every interesting question, wouldn’t that take all the fun out of epistemology?)

So whether there is a “biblical epistemology” depends on what precisely we mean by that. If we mean that there is one particular theory of knowledge taught in the Bible, in contradistinction to all alternative theories, the answer is obviously no. But if we mean that the Bible has significant things to say about human knowledge, that it places certain parameters on our theorizing about matters epistemological, and that it can fruitfully direct such theorizing, then the answer is surely yes. There is such thing as a “biblical epistemology”, just as there can be a “biblical metaphysics”, a “biblical ethics”, and a “biblical politics”. Likewise, there is such thing as an “unbiblical epistemology”, just as there can be an “unbiblical metaphysics”, an “unbiblical ethics”, and an “unbiblical politics”.

9 thoughts on “A Biblical Epistemology?”

  1. biblicallanguages

    Nice post, James. I appreciated the penultimate paragraph where you affirm that the biblical data can commit us to certain beliefs without claiming to be comprehensive in scope. I fear that some (maybe too many?) feel threatened by the idea that the Bible underdetermines certain issues at points, inferring that Scripture’s leaving certain questions unanswered somehow invites us to reason as autonomous rebels. Keep up the good work.

    Phillip Marshall
    Houston Baptist University

  2. Thanks, Phillip. Yes, there are two errors to avoid: (1) the idea that Scripture little to say about matters epistemological, which I took aim at in the post; and (2) the idea that Scripture leaves almost no questions open and grants very little latitude to epistemologists (and to philosophers more broadly). In general, I find the latter error is more common in Reformed circles and the former is more common in non-Reformed circles.

  3. matthewdschultz

    This post was very useful and I will be saving it for future use. Thanks for taking the time to make it!

    (I found your blog through a mention on Triablogue and I plan on reading it regularly.)

  4. James,

    Great post!

    Would it be suitable to add a corollary to #24, such as:

    “There are aspects of divine reasoning which are beyond man’s grasp. (Isa. 55:9)”

    I am inclined to believe there are senses of correspondence and of non-correspondence between the thoughts of God and man, a mixture of both, both so that God’s thoughts are comprehensible enough yet still transcendent. This appears to me to be warranted from Scripture, what do you think?

    I’m enjoying your book immensely! It’s stretching my brain.

    Grace & peace,
    Derek Ashton

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