Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Gospel Coalition's Claim that Due to Human Sinfulness Truth Is Not Truly Knowable at All (Part 2)

     In my last post I said that the Christian/Reformed mixture with philosophy I’ve been addressing inverts the order of knowing assumed in Scripture and does so in a way more consistent with Descartes’ own method of structuring the edifice of knowledge. You may recall that in his Meditations Descartes sought a foundation for knowledge which is conceptually clear, certain, and indubitable. And, of course, one of the first things Descartes rejects as such a foundation for knowledge is knowledge that comes by the senses (or what I am calling “physical seeing”). This just means that Descartes rejects at the outset what both the Bible assumes and our common experience teaches us, namely, that there is an important sense in which “seeing is knowing.”[1] Importantly, if what Descartes sets out to prove succeeds, then it changes everything about how we conceive of truth and how it is known.

     Let's follow Descartes’ line of thought for a moment. “I have learned by experience,” he says, “that those senses sometimes mislead me, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those things which have once deceived us.” In expressing his doubt in the senses as he does, Descartes seems to project on the use of the senses the kind of problem one finds with humans in their sinfulness. That is, once a person deceives us, we regard this not merely as a single, discrete transgression but as a broader problem of character. One who lies to us is a liar. Hence, it takes much time and an established record of honesty on the part of such a one for us to slowly regain our trust in them. We certainly cannot “trust wholly” what they say before then.

     Does human behavior, however, serve as a fit analogy to the senses when, seemingly, they “deceive” us? For instance, when we see the sun moving across the sky, we now know what was not known prior to Copernicus and Galileo and that is that the sun does not revolve around the earth but the earth rotates and is itself revolving around the sun. But were our eyes “deceiving” us all along? Do the eyes (or human senses in general) actually have a volitional or moral agency, similar to humans, such that they could “deceive” or lie to us? Is it not more accurate to say that the eyes are doing what the eyes do but that, being as small as we are as humans (and situated as we are on the planet), it only appears that the sun is moving across the sky? Don’t the same eyes convey to astronauts in outer space that it is in fact the earth rotating which causes the appearance that the sun is moving across the sky? Did the eyes suddenly decide to come clean and tell us the truth about whether it was the sun or earth which does the moving or are they doing the same thing they have always been doing but under different external conditions? My point is that Descartes enlists a false analogy[2] to persuade us that our senses (my first level: physical seeing) cannot be trusted for knowing truth. With these and other—what I consider—dubious doubts,[3] Descartes intends to move us away from the biblical and common sense notion that physical seeing is and may be foundationally important in a veridical quest.

     Once Descartes destroys this reality check of direct, physical seeing for truth, he turns inward for his indubitable foundation of knowing. It is important to notice, however, that in arriving at the latter, he still places his confidence in direct seeing, although, it is a confidence of a subjective kind, one that is directed toward his own internal ideas and thinking. What I mean is that while Descartes rejects that kind of knowing by direct seeing which is physical, he still relies on the idea (derived from such seeing) that knowing comes by direct seeing. There would, indeed, be no such frame of reference for Descartes as a possibility for knowing if in our human experience we had not learned to associate physical seeing with knowing. More to the point, if there had been no significant success rate in our experience for knowing by direct, physical seeing, such seeing could not have served as an analogy for the indubitable, foundational certainty Descartes believes he has discovered for knowledge based on a direct, mental seeing of his own ideas or thinking. Seeing would not be associated with clarity or “knowing for certain.”

     And, again, when Descartes arrives at this foundation—his “I think, therefore, I am”—we must keep in mind that he has no God, no world, no other persons but himself, and no physical body. He believes he has found something self-evidently true, namely, that as long as he is thinking, he exists. Later, philosophers like Hume and Nietzsche will marshal formidable, destructive doubts against every word in that statement: the “I,” the “think,” the “therefore,” and the “am.” Postmodernism (relying on such philosophers and pushing epistemological idealism to its logical conclusion—with the world wars of the twentieth century in the background) will deconstruct Descartes’ foundation for knowledge right out of existence.[4] 

     As stated earlier, the Christian/Reformed mixture with philosophy I’ve been addressing follows Descartes in this inversion of the relationship between the body and mind for knowing. That is, it keeps Descartes’ proposal that subjectivity of an internal sort is more foundational as truth—more real—than knowledge gained by the senses. It defends this position by pointing to supernatural knowledge from God which comes to the heart internally through regeneration by the Spirit in Christ and by the understanding imparted thereby as one reads the Bible. Put differently, Descartes’ modern theory as appropriated by (or mixed with)  Christian/Reformed theology (as I’ve been considering it) means that what is foundational for knowledge or truth is entirely supernatural in nature and does not have, therefore, a natural and rational component essential to (or inseparable from) it, since because of finitude and/or sin that component is put out of commission. Consequently, this mixture will appeal to its knowledge of God’s self-disclosure in Scripture as its foundational truth but it does so in what I consider an unscriptural manner—that is (and again), by following not the direct realism of Scripture but the epistemological idealism of Descartes in its reliance on internal (even if a spiritual knowledge based on Scripture) over external, physically and rationally, knowable reality.

      The Bible’s concept of truth is different. On the one hand, it is true that the apostle John says to the saints: “you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you have all knowledge” (1 Jn. 2:20). Again, he says, “But the anointing that you have received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him” (1 Jn. 2:27). And Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). In his gospel, again, the apostle John says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (Jn. 16:13).[5] Scriptures like this truly teach (as Christian/Reformed theology emphasizes) that knowledge of the truth comes to the heart of believers by the Spirit in a special way. It is, indeed, appropriate when a Christian speaks with a certainty that comes from God internally as spiritual confirmation of one’s status as a child of God and all that Scripture says as God’s Word. This is, indeed, foundational as truth even subjectively so.

     But it is not the whole story for how, according to Scripture, we are to understand truth. Notice that in the apostle John’s dealing with the error of Gnosticism and in order to establish the public nature of the truth of the gospel, he does not point to what Christians believe or a Christian way of knowing confirmed to the heart of a believer by the Spirit and the teaching of Scripture but to physical seeing (that is, sensory perception) and mental seeing (basic apprehension) as a critical aspect of knowing: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:1-3). What do I mean? If there is a question of true knowledge, of reality, with respect to the public truth of the gospel, the apostles appeal to every day knowing or what I’ve been calling court room epistemology. That is, when people in general ask: “How do you know that what you claim about Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, is true?” The apostles in response ground this claim in an ordinarily and universally knowable reality. In other words, they were saying to the whole world concerning Jesus’ life on earth—things like his miracles, teachings, and resurrection from the dead: “We saw. We heard. We touched. We connected with reality the way people normally do. If you had been here, you would have seen and heard the same things. This is how we know our message is true and why we commend it to you for your belief.” In doing this, they implicitly recognized that neither finitude nor sin prevents the basic human ability to know things requisite for their testimony to be meaningful and carry weight as confirmation of the truth for all people, places, and times that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.

     That is, physical and mental seeing which I have classified as the first two levels of knowing are critically important for establishing the truth of the gospel which the apostles preached. On the other hand, the apostles never said to people in general: “We have had this experience of regeneration. We have embraced certain Christian beliefs or presuppositions based on Scripture. We commend our Christian worldview to you for your consideration. Please consider how coherent our beliefs are and how incoherent your beliefs are by comparison. Consider what the Bible says. Here, take these scrolls. Read them. See for yourselves. Consider how Jesus is presented within our Christian perspective as the Messiah, as I go my way and pray that the Lord will open your eyes.” Such an appeal is, as I’ve been claiming, indirect and subjective in nature. The apostles never spoke that way. They were objective in their appeal. They pointed away from themselves to things that were objective and knowable by every one. That is, they didn’t point indirectly to their presuppositions but directly to the person and reality of Jesus Christ. They knew that when people are persuaded (see Acts 17:1-4) that Jesus is Lord, the power and implications of that foundational truth alters their unbelieving presuppositions and begins the process of establishing in them the full range of biblical and Christian presuppositions about God.

     One may find many places in Scripture where we see this appeal to what is ordinarily knowable by our natural and rational faculties as confirmation that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. For example, when John the Baptist is in prison (Matt. 11:2-5) and has doubts whether or not Jesus is the Son of God, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he truly is “the one who is to come.” Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Ask John what the Spirit is saying in his heart about me.” He could have said this, and it would have been true. It would even have been a significant, non-negotiable part of settling John’s internal doubts. But what does Jesus say to these disciples? “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Notice, Jesus doesn’t say, “What I hear and see,” but “what you hear and see.” The implication is that everyone could see these things and that human knowing in general is not defective for perceiving and apprehending the miracles Jesus worked. In other words, these disciples were no different from other humans. It wasn’t their special perspective or presuppositions based on being John the Baptist’s disciplies that made their testimony to what they saw and heard of Jesus’ ministry compelling as a confirmation that Jesus truly is “the one who is to come.” This is, again, what I’m calling “court room epistemology.” It is ordinary knowing, and it is foundational in an important sense as a confirmation—in the face of doubts—that in reality Jesus truly is the Messiah, the Son of God.

     I will have more to say about this later, but TGC’s and Phillips’ belief that because of human finitude truth is subjective and because of sin truth is unknowable—and that the remedy to this problem is a supernatural knowledge which comes by the Spirit without a basis in physical and mental seeing (due to the problems just mentioned)—implies that, had John been thinking appropriately, what Jesus told John’s disciples would not at all have alleviated John’s doubts. The reason is that though Jesus appealed to something other than his perspective or presuppositions — that is, to the works themselves he was doing — John could have thought to himself: “My disciples could have come under the bias, slant, or coloring of Jesus’ presuppositions.” My point is that there is a reality that is reliably knowable by physical and mental seeing, and it is critically important precisely because it transcends presuppositions. It is what forms presuppositions in the first place as well as has the power to alter them.   

     In Scripture, when it comes to confirming the truth of the gospel, we see this appeal to the first two levels of knowing repeatedly. For instance, when Peter says that the apostles were not following cleverly devised myths when they preached the gospel of Christ, Peter appeals to his eyewitness testimony pertaining to the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, when Elijah and Moses suddenly showed up. That is, when the questions arise, “Are these things real? Is this message of the gospel true to reality? Or just fiction?,” the apostles reply, “We saw. We heard.” As in a court room, the implication is: we saw and heard what anyone would have seen and heard had they been there.

     Because of this eyewitness testimony, Peter continues: “We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Pe. 1:19). Notably, this wording comes from the ESV text edition of 2011. In the 2007 edition, the ESV translated the same passage: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word.” In this earlier translation, then, Peter is understood as appealing to his eyewitness testimony but then contrasting that with “something more sure”—God’s Word. The idea is that biblical truth is more real or reliable than truth based on what has been seen and heard. Without being privy to the thinking of the translators behind this way of translating 2 Peter 1:19, this translation seems to fit the way presuppositionalism understands the relationship between God’s Word and attesting miracles with eyewitness testimony, etc. I mean that presuppositionalism regards Scripture as conveying reality to us in a way that is superior to anything knowable in ordinary reality (even if it is the miracles of Jesus) as known by physical and mental seeing. However, the ESV’s 2011 change in translation of this verse is not only, in my opinion, the correct rendering of the text but also consistent with the relationship Scripture presents between God’s Word and miracles as conveyed by the eyewitness testimony of the apostles. The latter view miracles as confirmation that God’s Word is true (not the other way around; see John 20:30-31 and Hebrews 2:3-4) and do so, implying (1) that there is an integrity in human knowing at the first two levels of seeing (physical and seeing) such that eyewitness testimony can serve in such a confirming role; (2) that there is knowable, universal, and objective truth with which biblical truth itself is consistent. In sum, God is not giving us fairytales and imparting the Spirit to our hearts to confirm such. He gave us his Son in fulfillment of prophecies and provided miracles attested to by the eyewitness testimony of the apostles as a confirmation in a universally knowable reality that what God had revealed in his Word concerning his Son had truly come to pass.  

[1] I intend this expression, “seeing is knowing,” in a simple, qualified, yet important sense. I will elaborate on this more when I explore in future posts the biblical assumptions for knowing but here I am not making any grand or unreasonable demands for seeing as knowing. I only mean that under normal conditions we generally and regularly do have successful knowing based on physical seeing. For instance, I am presently seeing the screen of my laptop as I type and not a tree or dog or the clouds; moreover, this knowledge that my laptop is here in front of me is reliable or true knowledge.
[2] I understand the fallacy of false analogy as an appeal to the similarity of two different things for the sake of reaching a certain conclusion, without noting a significant dissimilarity which causes the argument to fail.
[3] Descartes also doubts whether he is awake or dreaming because there have been times when he thought, for example, he was sitting in front of his fireplace, when in fact he was only dreaming. But, unless we are inclined, for some reason, to cultivate or give place to such doubt, is it not a fairly simple and routine matter to determine whether we are dreaming or awake? Can we not clear that up in a matter of seconds? Additionally, Descartes entertains the thought that we may be part of a demon’s imagined world, like characters in a video game. Again, unless we are motivated by some inclination to chase unwarranted conclusions, what evidence is there for such a supposition?  
[4] Regrettably, postmodernism will also think that the villain is foundationalism itself—that belief in absolute reality as knowable accounts for why there are wars in the world and if we could all see that there are no metanarratives, we would not take our beliefs so seriously and just peacefully celebrate the differences in our various religions and worldviews. But there is no avoiding of foundations behind what we believe or claim to know. The Bible certainly presents (and common sense requires, in certain respects) truth as foundational in nature.
[5] This has, of course, primary application to the apostolic role for establishing the canonical truth of Scripture (what we call the “New Testament” Scriptures). There is, I believe, a secondary and important sense in which the Spirit leads all believers through Scripture into all truth.

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