A Conversation on Theological Epistemology

My comments are bolded, and my friends are plain text.

I would say the “knowledge” that counts is more akin to intimacy, communion, or Polanyi’s personal knowledge and less akin to things like warrant, justification, etc. as Western theology has dwelt upon since early Scholasticism. Compare a great deal of the biblical usage of know is intimate knowledge e.g. Adam knew Eve and conceived. I have obviously been corrupted by Eastern Christian mysticism, lol.

I fully agree that the knowledge that counts is more intimacy and less warrant – and further that real repentance is required. Torrance once yelled at John Hick in a debate that ‘you will not understand unless you repent!’ I do think that Plantinga is basically right as far as warrant goes though, without of course reducing knowledge of God to warrant/justified true belief. Although I’m not too sure if it’s a good idea to put a wedge between reason/Knowledge/love – or heart/head knowledge, since it’s the *whole person* that knows, and I think that guys like Polyani and Merlau-Ponty are right when argue for tacit, bodily knowledge.

I see such a wedge between heart/head knowledge is actually between two sides of the same Western coin whose focus is on the epistemological approach of a subject. Love in the patristic sense is actually not a “way of knowing” but glory, participation (2 Pet 1:4), perichoresis, etc. If someone may “know” god via inductive cosmological argument it is surely nonsense to say no one knows God who does not love him? A whole knowing person is still half of a mystical Union -less than half actually. The epistemological prism is not the same as the incarnational prism, and the human/divine issues are just as easily imbalanced with regard to theosis as they are with revelation or Christology, I think. That we cannot know who do not love is from a broadly patristic and/or typically EO POV an issue of ontological union rather than epistemological approach. It is more a question of e.g. if God is love, how can there be union with God without the ontological characteristics of God’s energy transfiguring us (using the lang. of Gregory Palamas).. Love in this sense is not subjective (e.g. heart knowledge, moralism, etc.) -it is Christ’s ontological presence. “God is Love” -it is not our way of knowing or our way of acting etc. that is (that Kind of) love. Cf. the notion of Truth not being an epistomology but a person: “I am the Truth” as opposed to “it is the truth.” Truth as epistemological is a different approach, as is e.g. faith regarded as something like mental assent to a proposition or propositions.

I do wonder if such epistemologies of love tend to become charmed circles – ie, ‘just come inside and it will all make sense’ – immune to criticism from without. I think a lot of theology has gone that way, especially after Wittgenstein. William Alston tends in that direction, for example.

DH: The epistemological question of how do I know what I know viz. God is never asked in scripture. Certainly scripture never presents an argument as to how one knows God exists in the manner of the Five Ways and so on. The wise and intelligent may be blinded, whereas the blind and the mentally deranged may draw near. I think fideism, or the sort of heart knowledge approach stereotypical of charismatic as vs. a head knowledge approach does appear as you suggest, as immune to (epistemological) criticism, but both are epistemological categories as opposed to e.g. perichoresis. From the outside the latter too might appear as a charmed circle immune to criticism; if it is viewed from the epistemological prism “being convinced about perichoresis” might seem a sort of charmed circle of confirmation bias as well -but so would be the assumption that epistemology is all it is from top to bottom.

Fideism is, I think, rightly rejected theologically by RC, and the very notion of faith as a blind leap in the dark is more Kierkegaardian than patristic. However the Scholastic approach to knowledge of God RC has as its dogmatic alternative -also post-patristic- is empirically speaking as likely to lead to atheism as God via reason alone -hence many philosophers reject inductive cosmological arguments for God as question-begging etc.. “Heart knowledge epistemological approach” and “head knowledge epistemological approach” to God are in a sense two sides of the same Western Christian coin. If the reality of knowledge of God is ontologically based in the manner of the patristic view of theosis or deification, viewing knowledge of God from a subject oriented epistemological approach, whether it ranges from fideism to verificationalism, five or fifty ways, etc. is a lesser path to god.

But I think that even in scholasticism there is an emphasis on Gods ‘initiative’, since the only reason we can in fact reason to God is because our concepts preexist in the divine intellect, from which they derive their meaning. Obviously there are deep issues with Scholasticism/Aquinas, but those views are more subtle than often given credit for.

DH: I do agree that we can only reason because of God; discursive rationality as we experience it is not univocal and perhaps better closer to equivocal analogy than univocal analogy if analogical categories are employed -of course Aquinas would not disagree. The ability to reason to God philosophically is something Aquinas held, and RC holds as a dogma; this, of course, was denied by Barth and is something most Eastern Orthodox deny (myself included) albeit (1) I do hold there are rational “pointers toward” God, and (2) there is no bar as such to someone being Orthodox who holds the contrary position, e.g. theist philosopher Richard Swinbourne is Eastern Orthodox. Further I think it would be wrong to discount such avenues as legitimate modalities that may factor into anyone’s journey

Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Knowledge of God

Calvin takes as a basic axiom that the knowledge of ourselves and our knowledge of God is the most important aspect of knowing in general – of religious epistemology. They are tied together in an intimate way, Calvin says – from our knowledge of ourselves, we’ll come to a knowledge of God. However, no one can come to a true knowledge of themselves without a true knowledge of God. The two are tied together intimately.

Calvin treats knowledge of God first, and descends to the self later on – from the knowledge of ourselves, we can deduce only that we’re in a world of misery, and that we desire to rest in something greater. Our natural knowledge of God is suppressed or ignored, despite there being a kind of imprint of the divine on the heart and mind (this is an axiom for Reformed epistemology). The basic point, however, is that the knowledge of the self is tied together with knowledge of God – in Calvin’s case, our self-knowledge is knowledge of our need for God. For a brief exposition, see:  http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/01/15/a-calvin-clarification/

What happens, according to Bonhoeffer, is that when we begin to think and reflect upon ourselves, all our knowledge becomes self-knowledge, and takes part in the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil:

‘Man knows good and evil, but because he is not the origin, because he acquires this knowledge only at the price of estrangement from the origin, the good and evil he knows are not the good and evil of God but good and evil against God.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23)

Knowledge of good and evil is the cause of all the disunion in man’s life – and the cause of death in man’s life. The problem isn’t that we know good and evil, and try to do the good, but fail, and see that we need God – the problem is that we know good and evil, apart from God, against God. In Bonhoeffer’s terminology, we become a god against God:

‘…man, knowing of good and evil, has finally torn himself loose from life, that is to say from the eternal life which proceeds from the choice of God…Man knows good and evil, against God, against his origin, godlessly and of his own choice, understanding himself according to his own contrary possibilites; and he is cut off from the unifying, reconciling life in God, and is delivered over to death. The secret which man has stolen from God is bringing about man’s downfall.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23-24)

Bonhoeffer, contra Calvin, says that the knowledge of the self isn’t tied to knowledge of God – knowledge of the self is born out of disunion with God. This is an inversion of what’s a fairly key point in a lot of philosophy and theology – the knowledge of the self.