Epistemology – What Is It?

Epistemology

This should challenge the keenest intellect!

Epistemology, a study on how we receive knowledge                           by Jack Kettler


In this study we will focus on epistemology, or how we can know things.

The branch of philosophy that deals with the area of knowledge, its source, criteria, kinds, and the relationship between what is known and the one who is knowing it. **

Epistemology is the study of knowledge or how we can know things.

Some quotes about knowledge. Who is correct?

“All we can know is that we know nothing. And that’s the height of human wisdom.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates

Are Tolstoy and Socrates correct? Or would you agree with the next two quotes?

“The knowledge of all things is possible” – Leonardo da Vinci

“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” – John Adams, The Works Of John Adams, Second President Of The United States

Approaches to epistemology:

Empiricism is known as the theory that knowledge comes through sensations. Allegedly, the mind at birth is a blank tablet (tabula rasa) and then man’s mind assimilates knowledge via sensations.

An example of statement on empiricism:

If therefore children and idiots have souls, have minds, with those impressions upon them, they must unavoidably perceive them, and necessarily know and assent to these truths. Which since they do not, it is evident that there are no such impressions. For if they are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate? And if they are notions imprinted, how can they be unknown? To say a notion is imprinted on the mind, and yet at the same time to say, that the mind is ignorant of it, and never yet took notice of it, is to make this impression nothing. – John Lock, Essay, 1.2.12

Rationalism is the epistemological view that in regards to reason or man’s logical powers, would be source of knowledge.

An example of a statement on rationalism:

“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” – Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Scripturalism is the view that all knowledge must be contained within a system and deduced from its starting principles, in the Christian case, the Bible.

An example of statements on scripturalism:

“The teaching of Colossians 2:3-8 is unambiguous. ALL knowledge (note: not simply knowledge of “religious” matters is to be found in Christ.” – Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended

Plus, it can be added:

“And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.” – The apostle Paul in Philippians 1:9

In this study, we will be using the approach of Scripturalism.


Gordon H. Clark’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Christianity will be helpful for a short text book overview of epistemology:

EPISTEMOLOGY is the study of how knowledge is possible. The Greek philosophers from Thales (585 B.C.) to Democritus (c. 400 B.C.) were unable to complete their cosmological theories because unsuspected problems of knowledge constantly blocked them. The Sophists (425-375) concluded that knowledge is impossible. Plato and Aristotle opposed this skepticism, and ever since epistemology has been the crucial part of philosophy.

One type of epistemology is Rationalism. Plato had a world of Ideas as objects of knowledge because the world of flux could not be grasped. St. Augustine made extensive use of Plato. Aristotle tried to derived knowledge from sense data. Thomas Aquinas followed him in this. In England John Locked tried his own approach on this basis. But the outcome of British empiricism in Hume reverted to skepticism. Later, Kant, therefore, tried to form a base for knowledge in a certain combination of a priori (rationalistic) forms of the mind and sensory experience. This result in a “knowledge” of appearance, but left “reality,” i.e. things-in-themselves, unknowable. Then Hegel erected a grandiose “System,” too complicated to characterize in a few words.

From the middle of the 19th century philosophy has reacted increasingly against Hegel, either violently empirical as in positivism or violently skeptical and irrational as in existentialism. (1)

Thus far:

The only way we can know things truly if it is God speaks in Scripture. In this study, we will see a number of Scriptures that give examples of God’s speaking through creational or general revelation and directly through His Word, i.e., special revelation.

Scriptural epistemology will be looked under two categories, general and special revelation.

General Revelation

General revelation is:

“God’s self-disclosure to all humanity found in the external creation and internal human experience.” *

In the following passages, the reader will see God speaking through His creation. We will look further in depth at one passage in this section.

“And let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth; and it was so.” (Genesis 1:15)

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:1-3)

“And the heavens shall declare his righteousness: for God is judge himself. Selah.” (Psalm 50:6)

“And the heavens shall praise thy wonders, O LORD: thy faithfulness also in the congregation of the saints.” (Psalm 89:5)

“And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

“And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory.” (Ezekiel 43:2)

“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

“And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory.” (Revelation 18:1)

Digging deeper into Psalm 19:1:

Psalms 19:1 from Barnes’ Notes on the Bible:

The heavens declare the glory of God, etc.] By which we are to understand not the heavens literally taken, though these with the firmament are the handiworks of God, and do declare the glory of his perfections, especially his wisdom and power; these show that there is a God, and that he is a glorious one: but either Gospel churches, often signified by the kingdom of heaven, in the New Testament; the members of them being heaven-born souls, and the doctrines and ordinances ministered among them being from heaven; and there being a very great resemblance between them and heaven, in the company and communion enjoyed in them; and who declare the glory of the divine perfections, which is very great in the handiwork of their redemption; and who ascribe the glory of their whole salvation to God: or rather the apostles and first preachers of the word, as appears from (<451018>Romans 10:18); who were set in the highest place in the church; had their commission, doctrine, and success from heaven; and who may be called by this name, because of the purity and solidity of their ministry, and their constancy and steadfastness in it, and because of their heavenly lives and conversations: these declared the glory of the divine perfections; such as those particularly of grace, goodness, and mercy, which are not discoverable by the light of nature or law of Moses, as, they are displayed in the salvation of men by Christ, in the forgiveness of their sins, the justification of their persons, and the gift of eternal life unto them: they taught men to ascribe the glory of salvation to God alone, Father, Son, and Spirit; they set forth in their ministry the glory of Christ, of his person, and of his offices and grace; and they showed that redemption was his handiwork, as follows: and the firmament showeth his handiwork; for the same persons may be called the firmament, since they that are wise are said to shine as the brightness of it, (<271203>Daniel 12:3). These were like to stars in it, and were the light of the world, and declared that redemption is the work which Christ undertook, and came into this world to perform, and which he has finished; his hands have wrought it, and his own arm has brought salvation to him. The Targum interprets the heavens and the firmament, of such persons as contemplate the heavens, and look upon the firmament or air; and so do some other Jewish writers f292. (2)

Special Revelation

Special revelation is:

“God’s self-disclosure in direct, supernatural revelation, disclosing truths, including the good news of salvation that could not be known through general revelation.” *

Special revelation comes exclusively through the Scriptures. Like the previous section, we will look further in depth at a particular passage.

In the previous section, God in Scripture revealed Himself through nature or the creation.

“And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord… And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people.” (Exodus 24:4, 7)

“Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersover thou goest. This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou have good success.” (Joshua 1:7-8)

“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)

“Take thee a roll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken unto thee against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spake unto thee, from the days of Josiah, even unto this day.” (Jeremiah 36:2)

“And the Lord answered me, and said, write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.” (Habakkuk 2:2)

“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” (Luke 24:44)

“Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)

“These were more noble minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11)

“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.” (Romans 15:4)

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

“How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 3:3-5)

“And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.” (Philippians 1:9)

“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” (Colossians 1:9)

“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, [teaching, preaching] or our epistle [written letter].” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

“And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, [Paul most certainly is including the New Testament writings here] and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:15-16)

“Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, what thou seest, write in a book and send it unto the seven churches.” (Revelation 1:11)

God speaks to us through creation (general revelation) and the Scriptures (special revelation), in which He tells us the good news of the gospel.

Digging deeper into Acts 17:11:

Acts 17:11 from the Matthew Poole’s Commentary:

The Jews of Berea did excel those of Thessalonica, not so much in birth as in disposition: they were not so prejudiced and obstinate; they patiently heard Paul; they seriously thought upon what he had said, and compared it with the Scriptures. And thus God gave them the preparation of the heart; and they brought their empty vessels. No wonder then that the oil of grace ran into them, and filled them. The Jews call their learned men, the sons of nobles; and according to that expression, these Bereans, that had acted so ingenuously and wisely, were said to be more noble.

Searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so: truth dares abide the test; only false wares need a dark shop to put them off in. The Scriptures only are our infallible rule; for they come from God, 2 Timothy 3:16, who cannot lie, Titus 1:2. (3)

Now for some important insights from confessional sources on the true source of knowledge:

The Belgic Confession, Article 2: How God Makes Himself Known to us:

We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, 1 wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly the invisible things of God, namely, His eternal power and deity, as the apostle Paul says (Rom 1:20). All these things are sufficient to convict men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word2 as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation.

And likewise, Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 1 of the Holy Scripture:
6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

7.All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

In closing, some food for thought quotes:

“A theologian’s epistemology controls his interpretation of the Bible. If his epistemology is not Christian, his exegesis will be systematically distorted. If he has no epistemology at all, his exegesis will be unsystematically distorted.” – Gordon H. Clark, The Incarnation

“To reject revelational epistemology is to commit yourself to defending the truth of autonomous epistemology.” – Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended

“The foundation of knowledge is God’s revelation.” – Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith

“There is no environment where man can flee to escape the revelational presence of God (Ps. 139:8).” – Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith

“According to the principle of Protestantism, man’s consciousness of self and of objects presuppose for their intelligibility the self-consciousness of God. In asserting this we are not thinking of psychological and temporal priority. We are thinking only of the question as to what is the final reference point in interpretation. The Protestant principle finds this in the self-contained ontological trinity. By his counsel the triune God controls whatsoever comes to pass. If then the human consciousness must, in the nature of the case, always be the proximate starting-point, it remains true that God is always the most basic and therefore the ultimate or final reference point in human interpretation” – Cornelius Van Til: (DOF 94).

This study did not delve into the critical philosophical problems involving empiricism and rationalism. For a scriptural and philosophical defense of how man’s mind can know things, the reader should consult the next three books.

The reader should consult Ronald H. Nash’s The Word of God and the Mind of Man (3) and his The light of the mind: St. Augustine’s theory of knowledge. (4) These two books explain and develop for the modern reader elements of Augustine’s philosophy in the area of epistemology that is found in his De Magistro. (5) These works deal with the mechanic s of how the Christian receives knowledge into his mind.

The goal of this study is to help us magnify the Lord God for his marvelous grace that made us children of God through no merit of our own. It is my prayer that this goal has been attained.

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Nothing in us caused or merited this supreme act of love on God’s part!

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

Notes:

  1. Edwin A. Palmer, Ed., Encyclopedia of Christianity, (Wilmington, Delaware: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1968, out of print, typed), http://gordonhclark.reformed.info/files/2015/06/Encyclopedia-13.-Epistemology-typed.pdf
  2. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Psalms, pp. 210-211.
  3. Matthew Poole, Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), p. 441.
  4. Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Zondervan Corporation, 1982).
  5. Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge, (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1969).
  6. Augustine, De Magistro in Augustine: Earlier Writings, Editor, John H. S. Burleigh, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, MCMLIII).

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5)

“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

For more study:

* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/

** CARM https://carm.org/what-is-the-aseity-of-god

Gordon Clark on the Problems of Empiricism http://scripturalism.com/gordon-clark-on-the-problems-of-empiricism/

The Bible As Truth PDF by Gordon H Clark http://www.trinityfoundation.org/PDF/The%20Trinity%20Review%2000280%20TheBibleAsTruthClark.pdf

Many fine article and sermons on epistemology at: https://www.monergism.com/search?keywords=epistemology&format=All

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