Saturday, January 21, 2006

Thinking Towards a Christian Epistemology...

What a Christian epistemology should consist in seems to me to be:

1. It should be continuous between childhood and adulthood. The basis of faith in a child should not have discontinuities with the basis of faith in an adult. If to become converted requires that we "become like children" (Matt 18:3), as Jesus said, then the faith of adults should be like the faith of children. In Presbyterianism, our "adult" modes of believing are often so philosophical and algebraic that they cannot be understood by children. Children grow up believing because they've been taught the Biblical narratives, and are expected to make a radical leap to some scholastic system (like presuppositionalism) upon reaching adulthood. Certainly, the faith of a child should mature in scope and depth as one approaches adulthood, but a profound leap makes inevitable the question, "Which basis is the 'real' one?" which denies the faith of a child the respect that Christ accords it.

2. It should respect the distinction between the Creator and the creature. Most conservative Presbyterians are conscientious about maintaining this distinction in the area of metaphysics, but hold no such distinction in the area of epistemology. Many seem to think that for something to be known true to a man requires that it be absolutely known to be true, which means that it must be known to be true by a man in the same way that it is known to be true by God. To have absolute knowledge requires exhaustive comprehension, because partial knowledge of an area could be misrepresentative of the whole. Only by knowing an area exhaustively can you ensure that the next fact you learn about it won't alter your interpretation. When the area of knowledge is the nature of God and the universe, the only absolute knowledge is omniscience. So, the dichotomy between absolute knowledge and ignorance would leave us without knowledge.

In most areas of daily life, less-than-absolute certainty is not seen as a problem. I do not know with certainty that I will live tomorrow, but that doesn't prevent me from acting in preparation for it, and it doesn't even take away my moral responsibility to plan for it. Thomas was expected by Jesus to believe even before Jesus increased his certainty in the resurrection by presenting Himself (John 20:29). Jesus insisted that the certainty Thomas already had from his experiences with Jesus was a sufficient basis for faith, even though it was not absolute, having been added to by Christ's personal appearance. Our certainty in God's promises will certainly increase when we see Him face-to-face, but that does not remove or diminish our moral obligations in this life.

3. It should be honest about human situatedness. Presuppositionalists rightly refer to the Calvinist doctrine of the total corruption of the mental faculties of man. One need only look to the human world around him to see that self-deception is the rule in human thinking. The presuppositionalist insists that the only way to be clear of mind is to abandon "autonomy," by which they mean understanding which originates in the self, and embrace God's view of the universe. So, they make a radical epistemological commitment to believing in the Bible as the word of God by definition (rather than for good reasons). But, it is clear that this does not escape "autonomy," for what is more an act of autonomous self-will than declaring a presupposition covering God and the entire universe? Declaring a presupposition is a way of saying, "I will sift the data reaching my senses (to distinguish evidence from deception) according to this construct in my head." But that means the self is interpreting the universe rather than the universe interpreting the self. I know that the universe was around before me and will be around after me, so I don't see this as being a sound position to take. Once I admit that my autonomy is inescapable, I am open to becoming self-aware of the fallenness of my intellect, and can take pains to ensure that I don't misrepresent the degree of confidence in any given proposition.

(With thanks to Chris Finnegan for editorial guidance.)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

So this presuppositionalist walks into a bar...

So this presuppositionalist walks into a bar and overhears a man ordering a beer.

He asks, "How do you know that beer really exists?"

The man says, "I know it exists the same way I know that the sky is blue. I look at it, and there it is."

Presup. replies, "Apart from belief in the Trinitarian God, the world is unintelligible, and all attempts at understanding are futile, so you can't know that."

"What does Trinitarian mean?"

"It means the one God exists in 3 persons."

"But I can't understand that until after I believe it?"

"Well, every man already believes it, but represses the knowledge."

"So, this 'repressed knowledge' lets me understand what '3' is, but not what 'blue' is?"

"Well, only when I'm using the '3' for evangelistic purposes."