Christian Epistemic Models

The entirety of Christianity can be divided into several groups by epistemology; i.e. by how they build their knowledge beyond a basic concept of the existence of God. And, there are essentially three categories: High Certainty, Low Certainty or Arbitrary.

When Jesus ascended to heaven He left behind three elements: the Church (Matt. 18:18), the Scripture (2Pet. 1:19) and the Holy Spirit (John 14:16). In order to have a claim to High Certainty, there needs to be some type of an authority source whereby divine knowledge is communicated to us. Essentially, one of these three elements must be viewed as the ultimate authority.

The Church
Historically, the church was viewed as the final arbiter of truth that decided on the correct interpretation of scripture and the proper application of other truth sources (philosophy, tradition, culture, science etc.).

The Scripture
Due to the many abuses by the Church, the confusion over soteriology, and, the historical deconstruction that occurred during the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation shifted the authority from the Church to Scripture.

Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit could be the ultimate authority in one of two ways: either by leading each born-again believer directly (Pentecostal movement) or, by selecting specific individuals to guide the church like the apostles and prophets of old (the cults – Mormons, JWs etc.).

If someone wants to maintain a claim to High Certainty but rejects these three authority sources, all they could really do is view Christian theology like a type of potluck where they go around and select whatever dish they want based on personal taste and then hope to create a community of people of similar tastes. This more or less explains the thousands of denominations in Christendom and, needless to say, the approach lacks any credibility.

Low Certainty
After the Enlightenment, many scholars rejected all these authority sources. The Church had already been discredited by Humanism and the Reformation, the Holy Spirit approach was tried by various groups among the radical reformers and didn’t even get off the ground, while the Scriptural approach seemed to be discredited by the inability of the reformers to find consensus, by Enlightenment philosophy and by the Scientific Revolution.

Philosophy wise, Descartes turned medieval philosophy on its head by arguing that God cannot be taken for granted as the cornerstone of philosophy and instead one must start his reasoning with a blank slate. Kant essentially demolished natural theology and human claims to knowledge in general by defying both the rationalist and empiricist schools of thought. He argued that humans build knowledge through a combination of sensory information and mental constructs. Someone from an isolated jungle tribe, for example, would look at a tv remote control and think it’s some kind of stick because they lack the mental category to interpret the sensory data. He called this insight the ‘death of metaphysics’ since metaphysics lacked one of the two essential elements of knowledge formation, the sensory part.

The Scientific Revolution on the other hand introduced the various forms of Higher Criticism and, eventually, the Theory of Evolution.

Liberal Christianity
In response to the post-Enlightenment crisis of faith, several epistemic moves occurred in Christianity. Without an authority source, some new grounding needed to be found for religion and, several approaches were tried: Kant – ethics – God is the source of morality and religion is essentially a development of moral theory, Schleiermacher – psychology – religion can be grounded in the ‘universal’ human experience of an inner need to depend on a higher power, Barth – history – since God is Wholly-Other, the only way humanity can know Him is through a Self-Revelation, something history tells us occurred in the man Jesus, (and several other similar approaches). The key with all the liberal approaches is that they lack a basis for making high certainty claims regarding God, who He is, what He is trying to accomplish and what He expects from us.

As a final thought here, picture a series of hills side by side with each one of these epistemic models (hereon epimodels) being represented by one of the hills. In the valleys in between the hills, you have the Arbitrary approach mentioned above which should be avoided like the plague by any serious thinker. Essentially, whenever someone claims to be working under one of the models, there are certain logical implications of that model which, if not followed, they inevitably either become arbitrary in their approach or they switch models.

So, for example, someone might claim to be working with the Scriptural epimodel but insist that scripture must be interpreted within the parameters of historical Christian tradition. Well, in doing this they have switched from a Scriptural to a Church model.

Now the reason I went into all this is because, Christians are always debating about the proper way to interpret the Bible. But the first question we should ask ourselves before any debate on scripture is, which of these epimodels is being used by each party. The reason being that each of these approaches has its own philosophy of the nature of Scripture and it doesn’t make sense to talk about specific Bible topics without determining this first.

As an example, in the next section I will zero in on the Scriptural Epimodel and its implications.

The Scripture as Ultimate Authority
Even if we all in principle agree to work within the Scriptural Epimodel, there are logical implications of that model that we must follow or else, like already mentioned, we’re not really working in that model. In other words, the only way it can be true that God has chosen the Scripture as His primary means of communication with humanity is if these implications are also true. Here are some of these implications:

1) Canonicity – The Bible is a collection of books and letters written by many authors from different cultures over an extended period of time. The other Epimodels, in light of this, treat the books of the Bible as multiple distinct sources and then rely on some other authority to decipher the truth from this collection of ‘conflicting’ revelations.

The Scriptural Epimodel however cannot follow this approach since, in this model, there is no higher authority to differentiate between conflicting parts of the Bible. The model therefore must assume that all these unique parts of the Bible were somehow nonetheless orchestrated by God to paint one distinct picture. Just like a mosaic where different shapes of different colors come together to form a single portrait, so the Scripture must be seen as one story told by a collection of authors under the guidance of one principle Author.

Even the way we do exegesis under this epimodel must change. All the other models approach exegesis by trying to isolate a passage and then interpret it without regard to any opinion one might hold of what the passage should say based on what the rest of the Bible says.

The Scriptural Epimodel however must do this type of exegesis not just of the one passage but of the entire Bible, and then must allow the whole to have final say in how we interpret the parts.

2) Tabula Rasa
Christianity has a rich, two thousand year old tradition that has impacted most of us. However, any preconceived opinions that we bring to the Bible have the potential of influencing our reading of it. And, these would then carry a higher authority than scripture itself.

A Scriptural Epimodel demands that we make every effort to approach the Scripture with a blank slate.

3) No External Organizational Frameworks

This is along the same lines but more specific.

Soon after the Protestant reformation began, it became evident that lay people, convinced of the priesthood of all believers, could come up with all kinds of ways to interpret the Bible. Luther and the other reformers realized that this would lead to mayhem and introduced the idea that the Bible must be interpreted in harmony with historical Christian interpretation. But, since they obviously disagreed with the Catholic interpretation, they claimed that the church went off track during the dark ages so one must instead look back to the early church fathers and the early councils. What they did not recognize however was the extent to which these early church fathers had been influenced by Hellenistic thinking.

Independent of Judaism and centuries before Christianity, the Greeks had developed a distinct concept of God. They saw God as completely transcendent, simple, immutable, impassible and timelessness. They believed that material reality was only a shadow of the true reality and that man was a dual being possessing an immaterial soul capable of connecting with the timeless God.

Platonic and neoplatonic views of God, man, and reality were embraced by influential church fathers like Clement, Origen and Augustine and were thus incorporated into Christian theology and later adopted by protestant theologians all the way down to us today. And, once adopted, these views colored how one read virtually everything else in Scripture.

If however we come to the Scripture first, we see described a God that’s very different than the God of the Greeks. From the very first pages of Genesis, far from being timeless, God is described as being very much involved in our temporal reality. And, this picture of God continues throughout, all the way to Jesus who even comes to live among us.

External philosophical frameworks are necessarily incompatible with the Scriptural Epimodel since, when superimposed on Scripture, they are automatically given higher authority than the Scripture itself.

4) Metanarrative
But if we cannot bring external organizational frameworks to Scripture, how do we determine which of the different potential interpretations is the correct one? How do we avoid falling into the dreaded Arbitrary approach?

Let’s imagine that we come across a book that we have never heard of before by an author we do not know. We start to read and are soon introduced to several characters who are discussing the possibility of impending war. As the characters leave the meeting and start heading home, they get in their vehicles and get on the freeway. So far the story seems to be taking place in the present.

But as we continue reading we find that the characters each drive to various launching sites and get on board space crafts that take them to their respective space station. So now it seems that the story is actually set 50-100 years in the future. But, as we continue reading, we discover that this is not our planet at all but another planet whose inhabitants are considering coming over and taking the earth for themselves and destroying humanity.

Once we read far enough in the book to understand the setting, we are able to then go back and reinterpret the earlier sections in light of what we now know of the storyline.

Similarly therefore, the only way the Bible can be God’s primary means of communication is if it contains its own internal metanarrative that allows us to make sense of the individual parts. So the priority in Biblical interpretation has to be to discover this metanarrative in Scripture rather than borrow one from external sources.

5) Agenda
Many times we might come to the Bible with our own agenda wanting to know what the Bible has to say about any particular topic. If we’re working with the Scriptural Epimodel however, we have to give the Bible a chance to articulate its own agenda. What are the primary points God was trying to get across to us through scripture? The reason for this is that, whatever the primary topics are, we need to make sure we don’t interpret anything else in a way that obscures the main topics. We need to come to the Scripture willing to listen to what God wants to talk about so the metanarrative has to prioritize what the Scripture prioritizes.

6) Chronology
Many Christians have a tendency to read the new testament first and then to use the new testament to interpret the old. But we have to keep in mind that each author wrote to an audience that was already familiar with previous revelation and took that knowledge for granted. To get a clear understanding of the Bible’s internal metanarrative, we have to follow its development in chronological sequence. We have to let each section of the Bible build the context through which we interpret the next.

All of the above are necessary implications of the Scriptural Epimodel. It is the only way we could truly claim Scripture is the ultimate authority.

If the two parties in a discussion are working under different Epimodels or, if they disagree on the implications of these models, it is not possible to have a meaningful conversation on any bible topic. The most they could do is to debate the epimodels themselves or their implications.

There is presently tremendous amount of debate and confusion among Christians as to what the Bible really teaches on virtually every topic. Millions of collective hours are wasted each day with people arguing that their respective interpretation is more likely the correct one. Ninety percent of this however would be avoided if people took the time to recognize the epistemology in their own thinking and to approach the conversation accordingly.

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