by Clete Hux and Steven B. Cowan –
I believe that God exists,” the philosophy professor announced, “but everybody has his own opinion about what God is like. And who’s to say who’s right? We have to be agnostic about the nature of God. We can’t know anything about him for sure.” For many of his students, the professor’s pronouncements only confirmed what they already believed.
However, Mark, a Christian student, was not convinced. He could not accept that we can know nothing about God. One reason was that he was convinced that the Bible is the Word of God. That is, he believed that the Bible is inspired by God, that it constitutes a divine revelation. And given that the Bible is a divine revelation and that it tells us something about God, the professor ’ s agnosticism about God’ s nature is simply false.
Other articles in this issue of Areopagus Journal(April 2002) deal with the nature of knowledge in general and with the question of the truth of the Christian faith. In this article, though, we want to describe the role that Scripture plays in the human quest for knowledge. We will not defend the inspiration and authority of Scripture [we did that in our last issue], but we will assume for the sake of argument that Scripture is divinely revealed. On that assumption, then, what does the Bible contribute to the field of epistemology?
The answer to this question is two-fold: (1) The Bible gives us knowledge of truths that we could not otherwise know; and (2) the Bible provides us with control beliefs by which we can test truth-claims alleged to come from other sources.
The Bible as a Source of Otherwise Unknowable Truths
Our knowledge is finite. We are not omniscient. We usually come to know things piece-meal, a little bit at a time. And though we may know many things intuitively or innately, most of what we know we learn through experience. That is, we learn about most things by personal observations, through reading, through the testimony of others, and so on. This means that there are lots of truths that we may never know simply because there is not enough time to learn everything; and there are lots of truths that we might learn, but can’ t because we cannot be in the right place and right time to make the appropriate observations.
For example, none of us today can know whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in his assassination of JFK because we have no way of gaining access to the relevant facts. If we had a Time Machine, we would be able to go back and put ourselves in the book depository and see for ourselves what really happened. But we don’t have a Time Machine.
There are also truths that we can’t know simply because of the limitations of our minds; because our epistemic faculties are just not capable of learning the truth even if we were able to be in the right place and the right time. For example, the Bible tells us that God is incomparable; he is above and beyond us; his ways are not our ways, etc. And this has usually been taken to mean that human beings cannot know much about God on their own through the use of their finite epistemic faculties (reason and the five senses).
For example, though we know that God exists by using our epistemic faculties, and may even be able to discern some of his attributes (Rom. 1:18-20), we almost certainly cannot know that God is triune by any ordinary means. We also could not know of his plan of salvation on our own. And since knowing both of these truths is vital to our being saved, it is very important that there be some means by which we may learn certain facts that we could not otherwise know.
How then can we learn such facts? Well, one possibility is that God tells us about them! And, of course, this is exactly what the Christian believes has happened. In the Holy Scriptures, God has revealed truths to us that we could not otherwise know— truths about the world, truths about us, and truths about him. So, one role that the Bible plays in epistemology is to communicate information to us that cannot be known by any other means.
The Bible as a Source of Control Beliefs
“How do you know the Book of Mormon is true?” Joni asks the Mormon missionary.
“Well, it is true because God has given me a testimony about its truthfulness, and if you pray sincerely about it, you will receive the same testimony, too.” The missionary goes on to explain by quoting the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:4): “And when ye shall receive these things I would exhort you that ye should ask of God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
“How will the Holy Spirit manifest this to me?” Joni asks.
The Mormon missionary replies, “When I prayed this prayer, God gave me a good feeling about it; I actually had a burning sensation in my bosom. Other people who have prayed this prayer have had the same feeling, and I’m sure that you will too if you sincerely ask God to show you the truth.” The missionary waits for Joni’s response, but at this point she is at a loss for words.
If she had been better at thinking on her feet, she might very well have asked the Mormon why that “burning in his bosom” should be taken as an indication of truth. Yet, unfortunately, the way Joni’s Mormon friend encourages her to know truth is the way a lot of people—not just Mormons—test truth, namely, by their sincere feelings. Given the fact that in our postmodern age, when relativistic standards abound, it may be expected that objective truth and objective ways of knowing truth can be obscured by appeals to subjective experience.
With such an attitude toward truth and knowledge, it is easy to lose focus, especially with so many different opinions and perspectives competing for our allegiance. What is needed is a true compass for charting the course to arrive at truth. We must answer the skeptical question: How do we really know that some alleged truth-claim really is true? This question leads us to the second role that Scripture plays in knowledge. For the Christian, our point of reference for truth is the Bible. It is and should be “our only rule of faith and practice.” However, many people in our culture (some of whom even claim to be Bible-believing Christians) are falling into serious error, and need to be reminded of the role that Scripture plays in helping us avoid serious errors. In what follows we will look at two kinds of errors that Scripture helps us avoid.
The Errors of Subjectivism and Mysticism
First, there is the New Age or mystical approach to truth and knowledge. This is nothing more than age-old gnosticism. The term “Gnosticism” comes from the Greek word gnosis which means “knowledge.” The Gnostic claimed special esoteric or secret knowledge which could be possessed only by that section of humanity which was “pneumatic,” or “spiritual”1 As a second-century heresy it was condemned because it denied an essential of the faith that Christ had “come in the flesh.”
Such spiritualizing of the physical led to mysticism, which has found fertile soil in postmodern culture. Astrologers and psychics such as “Miss Cleo” are everywhere in our society. It is impossible to watch prime-time television without seeing commercials for such modern-day mystics (some even claim to be Christian) offering the latest and best ways to gain secret knowledge of the spiritual world by tapping into the “divine within.”
Of course, all of this is completely antithetical to the Christian worldview. In his little book, Escape from Reason, Francis A. Schaffer shows that when a person goes his own independent way, discarding the Bible as the ultimate source of knowledge, he has discarded the God of the Bible.2 At its core, this Gnostic approach teaches that a true knowledge of life and reality can be gained by going “within.” But what does the Bible have to say about this? Does it teach that a true knowledge of ourselves and of reality can be gained through such an occultic approach? Obviously, God abhors occultic activity (Deut. 18:20-22) and has already pronounced judgment upon it (Acts 7:42-43).³ Moreover, the Bible tells us to be careful in trusting our own experience. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” Proverbs 28:26 says, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but whoever walks wisely will be delivered.” The Bible tells us “not to lean on our own understanding, but in all our ways to acknowledge God and He will make our paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Going within ourselves for truth and knowledge won’t help.
Unfortunately, this subjective approach to knowledge has also infected the church. We see it in some parts of the charismatic movement, especially those caught up in the Word-Faith movement (AKA the “name it/claim it” or “health/wealth” gospel) where it is believed that true knowledge is an “inner knowledge” gained not by the intellect, but by mystical or ecstatic experience.4 The door of experience as a way to know truth is made wider in this movement than God ever intended. While holding the Bible to be the final arbiter of truth, many in this movement nevertheless subordinate it to their experience, twisting the Scriptures to conform to their experience. In fact, some go so far as to deny the intellect a role even in understanding the Bible. Word-Faith prophet Kenneth Hagin has said, “We cannot know God through our human knowledge, through our mind. God is only revealed to man through his spirit. It is the spirit of man that contacts God, for God is a Spirit. . . . We don’t understand the Bible with our mind, it is spiritually understood. We understand it with our spirit, or our heart.”5
The Faith teachers thus believe that the soul or mind of a person is bound by “Sense Knowledge,” and therefore is completely incapable of understanding spiritual matters. For that we need the Spirit to give us direct “Revelation Knowledge.”6 With this approach to biblical knowledge, the Faith teachers have aligned themselves with an experiential Gnostic view. They forget that the Lord himself told us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37-38).
In these examples, including the case of the Mormon missionary at the beginning of this article, what we’re being asked to do is to test what should be objective truth or fact by a subjective standard, by our feelings. This is a shaky foundation for testing truth because our feelings can be deceptive. Our feelings change and are easily manipulated. Our feelings are seldom a reliable guide to the truth. What if the follower of another religion appealed to a burning in his bosom to verify the truth of his religion? Who’s right? Whose feelings, whose burning bosom, do we trust? What we need is a reliable, objective standard for testing our feelings.
The Error of Trusting Human Reason
Another area where we can easily fall into error is when we trust human reason to give definitive answers to questions where its competence is limited, or its accuracy is untrustworthy because of some intellectual bias. For example, the Apostle Paul said that to the Greeks the message of the cross was “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23). But they thought this because the idea of a suffering Savior conflicted with their romantic notions of the Greek hero. Their presuppositions concerning what a “god” could or could not do prevented them from seeing the wisdom of God in the cross of Jesus.
Likewise, some people today are buying into unbiblical philosophical views because of their unqualified trust in human rationality. A case in point would be the current debate over what is called the Mind-Body Problem. Traditionally, Christians and non-Christians alike have believed that human beings, in addition to their physical bodies, possess an immaterial, non-physical component called a “soul” or “spirit.” Yet some contemporary philosophers have rejected the existence of the soul because they find it difficult to understand how an immaterial substance (the soul) can causally interact with a material substance (the body). Instead, they hold a materialistic view of human beings.7 Yet, like the Greeks who rejected the rationality of the cross, one may wonder if “human reason” is over-stepping its bounds on this issue—especially when we consider the unacceptable moral as well as theological and philosophical problems that arise from a materialistic view of human beings.8
We see a similar over-confidence in human reason any time people adopt an ethical view that is contrary to Scripture, such as defending the morality of abortion or homosexuality. We see it also when people question the existence of God by pointing to an example of some heinous evil act (such as the terrorist attacks on September 11) and conclude that God could not possibly have a good reason for allowing such an atrocity, and therefore God cannot exist. Such a conclusion forgets that “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” and places too much confidence in the judgments of human reason, supposing that our limited and sinful minds are competent to discern whether or not an infinite, omniscient being can have a reason for allowing certain evil acts.
Nevertheless, such unqualified trust in human reason is prevalent in our society. We need an objective standard by which we can prevent our intellects from over-stepping their bounds. We need a way to avoid falling victim to “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 3:8, NIV).
The Bible and Control Beliefs
Well, how should we as Christians respond to these subjective and presumptuous approaches to knowledge? How do we avoid falling into these errors? First, as Christians, we believe that the Bible tells us the truth about God, ourselves, and the world. It does not tells us everything about any of these subjects, but what it does tell us is true. And this means that the Bible provides us with knowledge. The Holy Scriptures, as the divine revelation from God, are a source of knowledge. Moreover, they are an infallible and inerrant source of knowledge. As Hoffecker and Beale point out, “A fallible Word of God would be a contradiction in terms.”9
Second, as a divinely inspired and infallible source of knowledge, the Scriptures are authoritative. This means that the Bible “is the standard or rule against which we may measure all human opinions and judgments.”10 So, if and when someone claims to know something that conflicts with biblical truth, we know that their claim is false.
Another way of putting this is to say that the Bible provides us with control beliefs. That is, the truths taught in the Bible serve as a set of checks and balances by which we can test any truth-claim alleged to come from another source, be it a modern day “prophet,” Miss Cleo, or a secular philosopher. More formally, let us suppose that the Bible teaches some proposition X. And let us suppose that a person offers for our belief some theory T which entails the proposition not-X. Well, since we know that the source from which we learned X (the Bible) is infallible, and we know that the source who asks us to believe not-X is not infallible, we should rightly reject the theory T and its entailed proposition not-X. Why? Because X serves as a control belief, a fixed standard, by which we test the truth of other beliefs.
So, the Bible serves as a safeguard against the Word-Faith teaching that we are “little gods” and against the LDS teaching on progression to godhood because the Scriptures clearly teach that there is only one true God and that there will never be any other god formed (Isa. 43:10). The Bible also teaches that human beings are composed of both body and soul, and that the soul survives the death of the body (Matt. 10:28; 2 Cor. 5:8). This biblical teaching provides us with a control belief against any materialistic view of Man which would deny the existence of the soul or of life after death.
Further, the Bible unmistakably condemns occult activities like sorcery, witchcraft, and necromancy (contact with the dead) (Deut. 18:10-11). So, when Miss Cleo with her tarot cards, or John Edward on his TV show Crossing Over, tell you things about your future or give you messages from your dead loved ones, you can rest assured that they are leading you down the wrong path.
In a day and age when people are escaping from the truth of God’s Word, and “leaning on their own understanding,” Christians more than ever need to affirm the authority of the Holy Scriptures over every area of life. And as we learn and receive the truths of God’s Word, we need to utilize the Scriptures in their God-given role as a safeguard to error—whether that error has to do with theological beliefs, or matters of history, science, ethics or philosophy.
Steven B. Cowan is Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, and editor of Areopagus Journal.
Rev. Clete Hux is a PCA teaching elder and the Counter-cult Apologist for the Apologetics Resource Center.
1 Everett F. Harrison, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 237.
2 Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1968), 11.
3 For more on the biblical view of Astrology, see John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on Astrology (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988).
4 See Douglas Groothuis, “Gnosticism and the Gnostic Jesus,” Christian Research Journal (Fall 1990): 8-9. The reader should not take this as an indictment against all charismatics and certainly not against spiritual gifts. However, this particular faction has definitely influenced many charismatics.
5 Kenneth Hagin, New Threshold of Faith (Tulsa, OK: Kenneth Hagin Ministries, 1972), 31-32.
6 Kenneth Hagin, Man on Three Dimensions (Tulsa, OK: Kenneth Hagin Ministries, 1991), 5-8.
7 What is most startling about this is that some Christian philosophers have adopted this view. See, e.g., Peter Van Inwagen, “Dualism and Materialism: Athens and Jerusalem,” Faith and Philosophy 12:4 (October 1995): 475-488; and Lynne Rudder Baker, “Need a Christian Be a Mind/Body Dualist,” Ibid., 489-504.
8 For a discussion of some of these problems and a defense of Mind-Body dualism, see, J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
9 W. Andrew Hoffecker and G.K. Beale, “Biblical Epistemology: Revelation,” in Building a Christian World View, vol. 1: God, Man, and Knowledge, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1986), 213.
Originally published in the Areopagus Journal April 2002.