CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

In my last entry (here) I mentioned the very persistent and pervasive belief in God's existence that has been at the core of my belief system – with the exception of a brief spell of deep skepticism during my undergraduate years – for as long as I can remember:
Prior to my conversion, I had read bits of the New Testament, and despite not knowing exactly what I was reading or what it meant, I had always been awestruck by the words of Jesus Christ. Like the people of Jesus' own day I was "astonished at His teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt. 7:29). …. One of the first reasons I am a Christian, then, is this immediate and inescapable conviction that God exists and has revealed himself in the person of Jesus. My faith ultimately is not the result of an argument or a scientific inference, but more like the sort of properly basic belief mentioned earlier. For me the existence of God has always been something of an axiom, a self-evident truth that holds prior to any evidence adduced either in favor or against it.
In other words my faith – not just in the generic God of theism, but in the God of the New Testament, Jesus Christ – was and remains a basic belief. That seems a reasonable enough position for a Christian believer to hold. However, I realize that some might take issue with the claim that a belief derived from Scripture could be more than simply basic but properly basic.[1] Could it be that hearing the gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit produces a conviction of truth that would be rational to believe without any further evidence? I would answer yes. The key there is "under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit." As God inspires the message and the message is heard, a conviction of truth arises in the mind of the hearer. "Faith comes by hearing," says Paul in Romans, "and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom. 10:17). What this means is that numerous truths of Scripture may be properly basic (certain), as God inspires them and as the Holy Spirit illuminates the mind as to their veracity.
On this view, what I would call illuminative foundationalism, the Holy Spirit's role in the transmission and acquisition of truth (or the act of knowing) may be said to complete what is missing in the two traditional epistemological approaches, classical foundationalism and coherentism. Recall that classical foundationalism requires acceptance of basic beliefs which are self-evident or incorrigible (hence properly basic), upon which other truths can be derived. Of course if the foundations are weak the entire structure it supports is weak as well. Now it certainly seems self-evident that, for example, the conclusion of a valid syllogism with true premises must be true. But how to demonstrate it? Appeals to logic cannot help us, for the soundness of logic is just what we want to establish. And obviously no empirical observation can demonstrate that empirical observations are trustworthy. So classical foundationalists face a regress problem.
Coherentism, on the other hand, appeals more to the rational "connectedness" of the system of beliefs.  So if the belief system is both grounded in truth and coherent, it should be able to provide us with knowledge. Indeed it may yield considerable knowledge, as it draws strength from a coherent "web" of beliefs. But it may not. The problem is that each belief, each strand of the web, depends not on some definitive reality, but on the amalgamation of the other beliefs that make up the rest of the web. The entire web may thus remain disconnected from the world as it actually is, much like a compelling work of fiction. Coherentists therefore face a circularity problem.
The best epistemology, then, will involve beliefs that are (1) grounded in an objective reality (external to ourselves); (2) authoritative (trustworthy); and (3) transmitted directly into us (closing the gap between the objective reality external to ourselves and our subjective perceptions of it). What I describe is the epistemology provided, in principle, by biblical Christianity. According to Christian theology, God exists objectively, that is, distinct from ourselves, transcending not merely each individual but all of humanity. Therefore he satisfies the criterion of external objectivity. God in his holiness also speaks truthfully and authoritatively through the Scripture (the Word), thereby fulfilling the criterion of trustworthiness. Finally, God through his Spirit speaks directly to the heart or the innermost consciousness of his people. So he meets the third criterion of direct transmissibility and accessibility (of truth). "He will guide you into all truth," said Jesus of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). 
Upon these biblical-spiritual foundations a more or less reliable "system" of knowledge may be constructed. This epistemology resembles Plantinga's "Reformed Epistemology," which is drawn from the ineffable sensus divinitatis. But it expands much further. A biblical illuminative-foundational epistemology also enjoys a much greater scope than the rationalist or empiricist systems devised by modernists. As Paul Helm has stated,
The foundations of modern epistemology, arising from the Enlightenment, are modest and minimalist, though ambitious claims are made for them. After all, "I have a green sensation" and "I know that I am conscious even when I am in a state of systematic doubt" do not seem to amount to much. By contrast the epistemic foundations of Christian theology embrace both our judgment about the reliability of our own sensory and intellectual capacities, and further, the sixty-six canonical books…. [2]
But it all hinges upon faith, essentially a willingness to believe what is true. Rationalists must trust that logic is capable of generating objectively valid truth, just as empiricists must trust that our senses generate reliable perceptions of the world. Plato argued in Theaetetus that "Knowledge is true belief, based on argument..." Contemporary philosophers suggest much the same, that knowledge may be defined as "Justified true belief." All this is remarkably in keeping with the insights of Scripture. Per the famous reading in Hebrews, faith is the "evidence of things not seen," i.e., of things that cannot be ultimately proven (Heb. 11:1). "According to your faith let it be done to you," said Jesus in the context of a pending healing miracle (Matt. 9:29). I will here take liberty to modify the words of Jesus only slightly, in the context of the less spectacular "miracle" of knowing the truth: "According to your faith let it be known to you."

[Edit: I didn’t know it when I posted this, but it turns out that Augustine had developed a theory of epistemic "illuminationism" similar to mine but which was said to be decisively refuted by Duns Scotus. There's nothing new under the sun, I guess. Per the Stanford Encyclopedia, Scotus, against Augustine, believed there to be four kinds of knowledge that require no justification, hence no divine illumination: self-evident, inductive, introspective, and sensory. These roughly parallel the modern criteria for properly basic beliefs. But since the notion of proper basicality still leads to regress, illuminationism (acquiring knowledge supplied by the Holy Spirit through faith) arguably remains more consistent and more complete than classical foundationalism.] 
[1] Alvin Plantinga has famously addressed this question with his "Reformed Epistemology" program, wherein the primary epistemic input is the sensus divinitatis, a sense of God's presence or of God speaking directly to the conscience. 
[2] Paul Helm, Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classical Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics (Eugene, Ore: Cascade Books, 2014), p. 67.


Great post Don. I know what you mean I had that same thing and I still remember it when Jesus words and deeds came alive for me and I realized He was the revelation of God to humanity.

I realized Jesus is "it." That's the best I can put it. It came through reading the Gospels.

Yeah Joe, I think when Jesus said "I am...the truth," He was telling us that He is "it."

And that's the core of my epistemology in a nutshell. Because Jesus is truth, to know Jesus is to know the truth.

Edit: Added comments on Augustine's "illuminationism" theory of knowledge.

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