Several years ago, I spent the better part of a year studying a particular issue which has raised significant discussion in Fundamentalism in recent decades. It became apparent to me through that study that the real issue in the discussion really had very little to do with the issue itself. The real issue, I realised, was epistemology.
Since that time I have invested some time learning about epistemology. I’ve written some posts on the issue which I’ll link to at the end of this post.
In a recent online discussion with Kent Brandenburg, an author who has written on the particular issue I was studying, I challenged him to write on epistemology. He has done so here.
This is my attempted response. Because the particular issue that has been raised is merely an application of these principles and because enough mud has been slung on all sides of that issue, I’ll try to limit my comments to matters that have specifically to do with epistemology.
Are we Rationalists?
Kent’s post deals with two key views under the headings “The Evidentialist, Rationalist Epistemology” and “The Fideistic Epistemology.” I don’t fit into either of those categories.
I am a self-identified basic presuppositional evidentialist. I believe that evidentialism is one of the key applications of the fact that man is made in the image of God.
But I am not a Rationalist. Rationalism tends to pit reason against divine revelation and tends to side with reason where there is a conflict. But this is not what I believe. And this is not what most Fundamentalists or conservative Evangelicals believe. In other words, this argument deals substantially with a straw man because those who oppose Kent’s position within conservatism aren’t generally Rationalists by any definition.
I do believe that we need to use reason and look for evidence, but I also believe that God’s rational capacity is superior to human rational capacity. So God’s conclusions trump man’s conclusions every time.
This is another key issue that I feel was distorted in this post. Kent quotes Daniel Wallace as an example of scholarship “that purposefully nullifies biblical theology, the supernatural, to let the natural go to work.” But the quote does not in any way nullify biblical theology.
Attempting to be objective means that we do approach Scripture with the basic presupposition that it is true, but also with an open mind that is willing to test and question every previously held conclusion. It’s not that we ignore systematic theology, but we must be sure to build our systematic theology on biblical theology. The fact that Kent’s position on this particular issue is in conflict with objectively approaching evidence could mean that such objectivity is “presumptuous.” Or it could mean that Kent’s position is just unbiblical. I believe the latter is true.
Believing scholarship still holds a responsibility to look at evidence as objectively as possible. If there is apparent conflict, we need to be sure that we’ve interpreted Scripture correctly before jumping to the conclusion that we’ve reached the limits of our rationality (or worse, rewriting the evidence).
The limitations of human rationality
Kent goes to great lengths to make the point that human rationality is finite and functions under the affects of the curse. This is exactly the conclusion I reached. But then under the heading of Fideism, Kent argues that salvation brings a remedy (“The remedy is through rebirth”). But Scripture does not teach that regeneration removes the limiting affects of the curse on our rational minds. And regeneration certainly doesn’t remove the inherently finite context of human rationality.
Kent is correct in saying that the Spirit of God teaches the believer. But according to Kent, man gets “a kind of supernatural-endowed understanding for the knowledge of the truth.” Here, I presume, Kent is not talking about specific spiritual truths. He’s referring to truth in general. In other words, Christians have a monopoly on the truth.
By this logic, a scientist can’t really learn anything about the universe unless he is a believer. The researcher, the biologist, the psychologist have nothing to contribute to human knowledge unless they are born again. Kent calls this position “believing is seeing.” It’s pure Fideism.
But is this what the Spirit is given to teach us? No. One Corinthians 2:10-14 gives us the primary teaching on this doctrine and makes it quite clear that it is “spiritual things” which the Spirit is teaching.
What is truth?
Kent makes the statement:
Biblical theology, the revelation of God in Scripture, trumps all other sources of information and knowledge. Jesus said, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
And he’s right. God’s word is truth. All of it.
But the converse is not true. God’s word is not all the truth there is. In other words, everything God says is true. But all truth is God’s truth. God created everything. If something is true, it finds as its reference point God (Acts 17:28).
The unregenerate scientist can learn much that is true in the laboratory. The unbelieving astronomer can learn much truth in studying the heavens. The lost psychologist can learn much truth in studying human behaviour. Why? Because he is a rational being made in the image of God. Not only can he learn truth, but we can learn truth from him.
Kent argues extensively for the dysfunction of man in reason and perception and then turns around and depends on the functionality of man in interpretation. The only way to dodge this is to give humans infallible interpretation skills based not on rationality but on new direct supernatural revelation.
There are three things I really appreciate about Kent:
- He is one of the most consistent men I know within the context of his position.
- He takes God’s word very seriously.
- He has been gracious to me in discussions even when I have been less than so to him.
I hope that this post will not be taken as a personal attack. My prayer and goal is to challenge not only Kent, but all believers to understand and develop a careful, biblical epistemology. That is why I expect Kent will fire back pointing out errors or inconsistencies in this post and I hope that I’ll be humble enough to grow from that.
I truly believe that this issue is crucial to developing an accurate understanding of God’s word. Believe it or not, I’ve found my study of epistemology (which is the basis for apologetics) has been a huge help to me as I testify to the lost.
Well, I promised some links so here they are:
Epistemology and Other Irrelevant Stuff
An Introduction to Evidentialism
A Look at Presuppositionalism
Three Propositions on Rationality