Monday, November 2, 2015

The Epistemic Nature of Unbelief


If it is true that knowledge can only begin with the right question, then it must also be true that someone knows this to be case before any question can be asked. That is to say that questions are impossible apart from knowledge. We know something before we ever ask any questions about the nature of knowledge. For example, when you think about the question, “what is knowledge?” imagine being able to ask that question apart from possessing some degree of knowledge. Is it not the case that one is making a claim to knowledge the minute he poses the question? It seems then that we already know what knowledge is before we ever embark on our quest for knowledge. At least this seems to be true in a most basic sense. Someone might say that knowledge about reality and knowledge about knowledge are not quite the same thing. However, it seems absurd to me to claim that a knowledge of knowledge is entirely different from a knowledge of reality. Included in reality is the idea of reality itself. And the idea of reality is impossible without some concept or understanding of the nature of knowledge itself. How does knowledge ever get going if we truly are a blank slate?

The idea that humans began with no knowledge whatsoever and evolved into knowing beings seems an insurmountable task to me. It is impossible to begin with a being that is indeed a blank slate and add knowledge to that being. At a minimum, humans would have to know how to organize the data or information arriving on the blank slate. A knowing being must know something to some degree if it is ever to possess knowledge at higher degrees. To say it differently, knowledge cannot advance without knowledge. If a being does not know enough to know what knowledge is in the first place, how can it possibly claim to know anything ever? The point is that knowledge is not a category or concept that had a beginning. Humans never began to know. Humans never existed as living beings without at the same time existing as knowing beings.

Some philosophers, empiricists for instance, are convinced that all knowledge is the result of sense data. Other philosophers are convinced that some knowledge is innate. Others, following Immanuel Kant combine these two and end up with a mitigated skepticism.  The quest for knowledge and the philosophical battles that follow have waged for thousands of years now. But they all have one major underlying presupposition: human autonomy. The Christian, when they enter this discussion must enter it understanding that epistemological questions such as these must be guided by the Christian belief in Scripture as our infallible rule of faith. That belief involves the belief that Scripture serves as our epistemic authority. In other words, the Christian brings a distinct philosophy of knowledge to the discussion that is unlike anything the pagans embrace. This must always be in the forefront of our mind as we engage our respective pagan cultures. The unbeliever begins his conversation with the Christian at a very different starting point and with a contrary set of criteria for what can and should be believed.

A survey conducted by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway research indicated that the number one heresy in American Christianity is the denial of the Bible’s teaching about the doctrine of sin, to be precise, it is the outright denial of the doctrine of total depravity. 67% said that most people are by nature good. Only 16% believe that we cannot turn to God on our own will. 71% agree that we must contribute our own personal effort for personal salvation. 64% claim that in order to earn peace with God we must seek God first and then God responds with grace. This pattern of thinking is universally pervasive in the pagan mind. There is no pagan mind that is not infected with the hideous disease of human autonomy. Moreover, there is no pagan mind that is not infected with the sinful condition of total depravity.

Paul tells us in Eph. 2:1 that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. We lived in the lusts of the flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh, and were by nature, like every other pagan, children of wrath. We were by nature, children of wrath. We walked in the futility of our mind, darkened in our understanding. (Eph. 4:17-18) We had become futile in our speculations and our foolish heart was darkened. (Rom. 1:21) We had a mind determined to serve the flesh, filled with death, and we were sworn enemies of God. (Rom. 8:6-8) When we see the wicked man in modern society, we have a tendency to reduce his wickedness and see him as someone to be pitied, someone that needs God, that needs redemption. We even see him as someone that if they just heard the gospel story in just the right way, he would exercise the good in his heart and turn to Christ. The small number of texts above tell a very vivid and distinctly different story. The pagan’s view for embracing belief and for what he calls true knowledge is radically different from the Christian view. The pagan bows his knee to no one but himself in every area to include the area of human knowledge.

When we encounter these pagans, both in and outside the church, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are dealing with godless pagans who are by nature haters of God and of the work Christ accomplished at the cross. It is true that we should look upon these pagans with compassion in the sense that they are desperately wicked and ignorant and blind to this fact. Their minds have been blinded by the god of this world. But they are not blind against their will. So our compassion should be measured accordingly. The pagan is willingly blind. We would do well to keep this in mind in all our interactions with them. Scripture not only uses compassionate language to describe the condition of the pagan, but it also uses what we would consider in our culture, quite harsh language to describe them as well. A balanced view is the best approach to evangelizing the pagan.

For the Christian apologist then, it isn’t just a matter of providing the best evidence in the best way that will make all the difference. Such an approach ignores the spiritual reality of the pagan mind. Moreover, the most effective arguments one can construct will not move the pagan even an inch from his God-hating philosophy of life. He is committed…to himself. The Christian apologist then begins with a fundamentally distinct epistemology that is directly contrary and contradictory to a pagan epistemology. Ignore this and you begin in serious error from the very start of your apologetic and evangelistic enterprise. We do not seek to supply the pagan with evidence that meets his criteria. We do not construct arguments that are designed to wow and impress the pagan. We appeal to Scripture. We point to the need for faith in Christ. We recognize that the Word of God performs a work in the human heart resulting in faith and true knowledge.

For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. (1 Thess. 2:13) By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. (Heb. 11:3)


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