The Epistemology of Liberal Theology

 
In my previous post I explained that Adventists have a set of presuppositions regarding the Biblical text that affect the methodology used to decipher the text.
 
We don’t believe the Bible is a super-text, like the fundamentalists do, meaning therefore that it still has all the limitations of human text. On the other hand, we also reject the liberal notion that, because the Bible is a human text, it could not have been used by God to communicate with humanity.
 
Not just this, but we also disagree with Catholics who say that the Bible’s limitations necessitate an authorized 3rd-party interpreter, since that would require trusting the interpreter. And, neither can we agree with other Protestants who attempt to calibrate Scripture through the lens of early church tradition, since tradition itself isn’t that trustworthy.
 
All this pushes us into a hermeneutical corner leaving us with just one alternative, as a way of making up for the potential errors and ambiguity of meaning in the text: we have to approach the text the way scientists approach clinical trials, polls or just data in general. We have to use the largest possible sample size in our theological development: the Canon itself.
 
As far as methodologies go, what this means is that we must keep in tension two disciplines: exegesis – that requires approaching a text in isolation, free from outside influences – and, systematics, that, in our case, requires a large sample size of Scriptural data. Neither is it surprising to see occasional disagreements between our exegetes, that might have been trained under outside perspectives, and our systematicians trying to work out the canonical model.
 
But this leaves us with one other question. On what grounds do we choose our presuppositions to begin with? Are they not just anther unwarranted leap of faith? To answer this, we have to take a detour into epistemology.
 
Epistemology deals with what we know and how we know that we know it. If we lost faith in everything we thought we knew about religion, we would crash-land into the bottom-most layer of knowledge, agnosticism. Agnosticism is the default; the baseline that every claim to religious knowledge has to rise above. Any Christian perspective, any non-Christian religious perspective, even Atheism/Naturalism as a perspective, is an attempt to build knowledge beyond a basic ‘I have no idea.’
 
But, how exactly do we do that? Well, the simplest option, is to just make a choice to believe something: I choose to believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, I choose to believe that L. Ron Hubbard was telling the truth, I choose to believe Mohammed talked to an angel, I choose to believe the universe came to exist through natural processes. Needless to say, this isn’t a very good approach. But, it is an option. What we want to know here is if we can come up with something better than either agnosticism or fideism. To do that, we need to first discuss how human beings can come to know anything at all.
 
If we boiled down our knowledge gathering processes to their most basic form, it would come down to simply our reason and our senses. Our senses can perceived the physical/material environment while our reason can try to organize, to make sense of the empirical data, and possibly even to draw inferences slightly beyond that data. Our senses of course have their limitations, but we can extend them using technology and can try to reduce the potential for error through a carefully applied scientific methodology.
 
But the question we need to answer here is, to what extent are our knowledge gathering processes capable of tapping into the realm of metaphysics? Let’s consider an analogy:
 
Suppose one day you were drugged and kidnapped and woke up some time later in a large room with no doors and no windows, alongside a small group of other individuals you’ve never met, in a similar predicament. To figure out what’s going on, you can use your senses to scan the room, to look for weak sections in the wall, to check if there are any air vents maybe that would allow you to catch a glimpse of what is outside the room. But if the walls are solid enough not to allow your senses to reach beyond them (you can’t see anything, hear anything, feel anything etc.) that marks the end of your empirical knowledge regarding what is outside of the room and why you happen to be there.
 
Your reason on the other hand can go beyond the limitation of your senses, using your imagination. You can have a discussion with the other people in the room regarding what might be the best possible explanation for what is happening. Someone might suggest that maybe you are being held for ransom. Someone else might purpose that this could be some type of scientific experiment. Still anther might say that this might be a CIA black site. If several of you felt that one of the scenarios was the most plausible, you can then develop that scenario further, by working out the implications of your initial presuppositions. But the important thing to realize here is that each of these propositions is essentially a guess and could very well turn out to be wrong.
 
Even so, when it comes to metaphysics, science/empirical inquiry is out of its element, by definition. Science can only study physical/material reality. If there is anything beyond the material, science has no way of knowing it. Reason on the other hand can transcend the boundaries of physics, but only via guessing. It can propose possible alternatives and speculate about which one might be correct, but nothing more. Just like to the people in the room, the world outside of space-time is out of our reach.
 
On the other hand, just because the people in the room have no access to knowledge beyond the walls does not mean that those who placed them in the room couldn’t provide this knowledge to them. Someone could get on the speaker and tell them that they were taken for some specific reason and that they are being held at a specific location. Even so, our inability to obtain metaphysical knowledge on our own does not prevent God from revealing it to us if He so chose. Moreover, it is entirely God’s prerogative to decide how He communicates this knowledge to us.
 
So what is the point of all this? It is to show that when Liberal Theology claims to be built on reason and science rather than revelation, what it actually means is that it believes God provided His revelation THROUGH reason and science. Reason and science alone would not be able to do this but, Liberal Theology proposes, the reason they CAN do it is because God chose to use them (reason & science) as His agents of revelation (instead of some other agent).
 
So essentially, every theological model, whether Liberal, Neoorthodox, Catholic or Canonical, is built on presuppositions. The models are then developed and, the way we evaluate the models, is not by whether or not they depend on presuppositions, since they all do, but by how well they manage to incorporate all the data of human existence. Because all the models have strengths and weaknesses, they cannot be critiqued in isolation, but must be contrasted side by side with other models. Just because one model has problems does not mean that other models might not have even greater problems.
 
In conclusion, Adventist theology is built on a distinct set of starting assumptions that lead naturally to conclusions which vary to a lesser or greater degree from those of other Christian groups. These assumptions however are no different, epistemically speaking, from the assumptions of any other group.

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