Epistemology pertains to where we "take our stand" on what we believe. Christianity is not simply taking a stand on what we believe about Jesus Christ, but is the ontological presence and activity of the living Lord Jesus within and through the Christian.
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Have you heard of "the epistemological heresy"? Though the title may be novel, the heresy is nothing new. It is just a new title on an old problem. In fact, the "epistemological heresy" may be the underlying heresy of all heresies, "the mother of all heresies." This particular heresy is so subtle and pervasive that most who would call themselves "Christians" have inadvertently adapted to its heretical presuppositions and are unable to recognize the extent to which they have adopted its premises. Most of Western Christian theology has been infected by the mind-set of this heresy.
Throughout the centuries of Christian thought there have been Christian thinkers who have honestly and spiritually maintained the distinctiveness of the Christian message. Those outside of the Christian faith have often reacted to the Christian presentation and proclamation, finding particularly offensive the legitimate assertions of exclusivity concerning the singular reconciliation of man with God through Jesus Christ. As the Christian presentation is typically argued, though, the offense to non-Christian inquirers may be quite valid. If the argument is simply that my belief-system is superior to your belief-system (and any other belief-system), then such an offensive (double entendre intended) approach to exclusivism is indeed pompous and elitist.
When Christians proudly assert sole claim to absolute information and exact understanding of precise precepts of moral standards, they have set themselves up as gods on their own playground. When Christian presentation stoops to the level of mere apologetic reasoning and argument concerning tenets of mental assent, then the relativistic battleground is but a gory picture of the blind beating out the brains of the blind.
Perhaps the foregoing has given the reader a glimpse of what the "epistemological heresy" might entail. Further explanation will first require closer definition.
"Epistemology" is a philosophical term etymologically derived from three Greek words: (1) epi meaning "upon" or "on." (2) histemi meaning "to stand." (3) logos meaning "word," and indicating "logical consideration of or study of." The Greek word epistamai referred to the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding, as well as the significance of such information. Epistemology refers to the considerations of what we stand upon for our understanding. How do we know what we know? Why do we believe what we believe? Where do we take our stand concerning the opinions which we claim to believe and to know? These are the considerations of epistemology.
The New Testament contains several usages of the Greek word epistamai. A couple of examples should suffice to document such.
In the "faith chapter" of Hebrews 11, the writer explains that "by faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out..., not knowing (epistamenos) where he was going" (Heb. 11:8). Abraham did not have the logistics, the chronology, the itinerary of his journey all logically established. The details of his sojourn were not epistemologically determined in human logic categories, but rather he trusted God in faith.
Writing to Timothy, Paul indicates that "if anyone does not agree with...the teaching conforming to godliness, he is conceited (puffed up) and understands (epistamenos) nothing" (I Tim. 6:3,4). Paul's argument seems to be that the teaching of the Christian life is based on the faith-derivative of God's character expressed in human behavior. To fail to understand and agree with this is to "stand upon" insubstantial understanding. Although such a person may have their epistemological belief-system all systematized and categorized, theologized and dogmatized, he takes his "stand upon" something other than the dynamic person of Jesus Christ.
Additional Greek words are used in the New Testament to refer to "knowledge" and "understanding," including the words eideo and gnosis. To the Corinthians Paul notes that "knowledge (gnosis) makes arrogant (puffs up), but love edifies" (I Cor. 8:1). Later in the same epistle he writes, "if I know (eido) all mysteries and all knowledge (gnosin)...but do not have love, I am nothing" (I Cor. 13:2). Metaphysical understanding and intellectual understanding acquired epistemologically are not God's ultimate objective for man. Rather, God wants His character of love to be expressed behaviorally. Paul explains that his prayer for the Ephesians is that they might "know (gnonai) the love of God which surpasses knowledge (gnoseos)" (Eph. 3:19).
Jesus indicted the Jewish Pharisees by charging, "You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life" (John 5:39,40). The written statements of factual information about history and theology contained in the Biblical record and upon which religious people take their stand to develop a belief-system and a doctrinal position, constitute only a foundational basis of epistemological understanding. Jesus considered such totally insufficient as the basis for the divine reality that He was making available in Himself. He was making His own divine being, His own life, available for the restoration of functional mankind.
Epistemological understanding is inadequate to comprehend the divine reality that is the essence of Christianity. The objective of the Christian message is not to encourage people to receive and accumulate and assent to information, but rather to receive the very Being of God into themselves (John 1:12) and allow Jesus Christ to be their life (Col. 3:4).
The essence of Christianity is to be identified as ontological rather than epistemological. "Ontology" is etymologically derived from two Greek words: (1) ontos meaning "being." (2) logos meaning "word," and indicating "logical consideration of or study of." "Ontology" refers to the philosophical study of being. In its broadest usage "ontology" considers the entire issue of being and existence in general. More specifically, we are employing "ontology" as referring to the divine Being of the Creator God, and His personal relation to His created beings; the relation of the God-Being and human beings. The personal Being of God, the I AM (Exod. 3:14), and His relationship with human beings must be considered ontologically rather than merely epistemologically. The knowledge being considered is not just the knowledge of impersonal factual data and information, but the personal knowing of personal beings in personal relationship.
The purpose of this study, then, is to emphasize the ontological considerations which must be foremost in Christian reasoning. This is never to deny though that there is an epistemologically based understanding that is foundational to Christianity. There are historically dated events and theological interpretations of those events that form the foundation for Christian understanding. They are documentable and logical. Christianity is not just a subjective, mystical experiencing of supernatural, metaphysical being with existential significance. Such is the false accusation of secular epistemological extremists. The opposing extreme is to camp with the religious epistemologists who view Christianity as but an historical society for the remembrance of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection, or as but a theological society for the interpretation of those events. To present Christianity with an exclusively epistemological emphasis is equally extremist as presenting it as exclusively existential experientialism. Avoiding the extremes, we want to understand the ontological reality of Christianity, how the very Being of God, His life, His character is present in the Christian by the indwelling spiritual presence of the Spirit of Christ, and how He desires to live out His life and express His character in our behavior.
The Creator-God created the creature-man in such a way as to encourage the free-flow of the active expression of God's character in the behavior of man. The freedom for such function is symbolized by the option of the freely chosen "tree of life" (Gen. 2:9,16). In such a receptive faith-choice man would allow for the grace expression of God's activity, thus imaging God's character in visible behavior. This ontological flow of divine Being expressed within and through humanity was the Creator's intent, so as to glorify Himself within His creation (Isa. 43:7; 48:11).
The fall of man into sin indicates the choice that mankind made collectively "in Adam." It was a choice to disallow the ontic flow of divinity expressed in humanity, to sever that unique relationship of Divine Being expressed in the human being. Man was divorced from the spiritual unity of relationship he had with God, sacrificing his spiritual identity, nature, image, etc., which were contingent on that relationship. Instead man chose the lie of independent determination of right, good, truth, etc., with the fallacious epistemological understanding that he could determine from his own self-centered perspective what is true, good and right.
The history of mankind is replete with a confusion of opinions as men have advocated competing ideologies to attempt to explain themselves and their universe. Their quest for identity and meaning, for certainty and security, are but an ongoing enactment of Babel with semantic and interpretive diversities ad infinitum.
Greek philosophers in particular were adept at articulating reasoned explanations of universal principles. Socratic dialecticism, Platonic dualism, Aristotelian rationalism all indicate the epistemological base of the Greek philosophers which has had such a lasting effect on Western thought and religion.
"In the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4), Jesus Christ, the God-man, was vested into the historical situation of mankind by the incarnation. As the "I AM" (Exod. 3:14) Being of God, He repeatedly verbalized such in the ego eimi declarations (John 6:35; 8:12,58; 10:9,11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). He came as man to take the sin of man, to vicariously bear the death consequences of sin as man, in order to restore mankind with His divine life, the restoration of functional humanity by the ontological presence of the Spirit of Christ within the spirit of man. This is the grace distinctive of Christianity wherein the radical uniqueness of the divine action (salvation, justification, sanctification, etc.) is necessarily derived out of, and is vital expression of, the divine Being in Christ. The ontological connection and association of God and man is restored in Christ.
The explanation of this living presence of God in man by the risen Lord Jesus was not a simple matter since the original proclamation was set in the context of Jewish religion. Epistemological mind-set was rigidly fixed in their law-based doctrinalism and moralism.
The Greek wisdom of Gnosticism was also a formidable antagonist to nascent Christian presentation. A dualism of spirit and matter alongside of a dualism of cause and effect via spiritual emanations created a pseudo-balance of epistemological and experiential understanding.
Whereas the first century polarization was primarily a breaking free from identification with Jewish religion, the concerns of the Christian thinkers in the second, third and fourth centuries was primarily in reaction to Gnosticism. Reactions often produce opposite extremes as the pendulum swings the other way, and so it was that the ontic distinctive of Christianity was overshadowed by the epistemological concerns of doctrine and morality, as evidenced in the writings of the church fathers and their reversion to legalism. The ensuing creedalizing of a Christian belief-system has been referred to as "the Latin heresy,"1 but we are herewith using the broader designation of "the epistemological heresy."
As the institutional church proceeded into the Medieval period the preservation of doctrinal orthodoxy was regarded as paramount. Inquisitions were conducted to combat error and heretical opinions, with every means employed to ostracize, excommunicate and murder those who disagreed.
The Protestant Reformation was but a re-forming of theological and ethical reasoning. John Calvin's theological systematizing in his Institutes of the Christian Religion relied heavily on Augustinian determinism and the closed-system of epistemic thought Augustine employed. Calvin's ethics were likewise devoid of ontic understanding.
The history of Protestantism is but a melee of doctrinal argumentation as the denominationalized systematic theologians contend for their interpretations. The so-called Enlightenment only exacerbated the epistemic warfare with its emphasis on rationalism and the determination of truth by deductive logic and propositional conclusions.
Has anything changed? Christian religion today is mired in doctrinal dispute. They argue over the length of one's ordo salutis in the "Lordship salvation" debate. They banter about the legitimacy of charismatic experientialism. They attempt to defend their historical and theological assertions with apologetic proofs. Contemporary fundamentalism and evangelicalism are so entrenched in the "epistemological heresy" that their ideologies have become idolatry, and they proceed to worship the Baal of natural thinking rather than God in Christ.
It is imperative that we make the distinction between an epistemological base of knowing and perceiving action and an ontological base of knowing and perceiving action. Christianity is not essentially assent to or belief in tenets of truth, but rather receptivity to and participation in the activity of the Being of the One who is Truth (John 14:6). Jesus did not say, "I came that you might have orthodox beliefs and defend them apologetically." He said, "I came that you might have life (the very Being of God) and have such more abundantly (in the abundant expression of God's character in our behavior). (John 10:10)
The religion of "natural man" inevitably slides toward epistemological knowledge, towards knowledge of external data formulated in propositional truth statements. These "articles of faith" are defended most adamantly as essential doctrines of Christian catechism.
When the reason of man is thus deified, it spawns innumerable ideas, concepts, opinions, thoughts, doctrines, prejudices, etc. These mental constructs (such as the "idea of God" or the "idea of salvation") tend to become self-existent entities, autonomous tenets, which develop a history of their own, with a separate self-generative function. Thus they are evaluated, plotted, charted, analyzed, modified, altered and criticized.
Natural theology develops an "idea about God" by logical deduction. "He must be, therefore He is." It is an attempt to know God apart from God. Such reasoning may even arrive at a concept of a monotheistic God who is infinitely personal and loving, with an only-begotten Son who was willing to be incarnated and to give His life in crucifixion. Such an "idea of God" and "idea of salvation" can still be detached from any personal knowing of the Living God. If so it remains an idolatrous false-image carved in the mind of man. Natural theology is anathema!
God can be known only in the personal self-revelation of Himself. More specifically, that revelation is made by the Son (Luke 10:22). God is known personally and relationally in an ontological bond, a spiritual union (I Cor. 6:17). God does not reveal some "thing" about Himself in order to make available some "thing" (such as holiness, goodness, love, peace, etc.); rather He reveals Himself, His Being, for that which He desires to give is Himself, His Being in action.
Our theology must always commence with who God is, not with His decrees, His will or His laws. God does what He does because He is who He is, not because He has decreed a plan, developed a principle, determined a precept, and set these in motion in deistic detachment.
The Being of God and the act of God must remain connected. They must always cohere. There is no act of God apart from His Being. His Being is always dynamically involved in His act. His doing is always the dynamic expression of His Being. The activity of God is derived out of His Being, ek theos. "God is love" (I John 4:8,16); the active expression of love is ek theos (I John 4:7), only and always.
God is the very content of all that He does. The divine action (whether salvation, justification, sanctification, etc.) is necessarily derived out of, and is the vital expression of, the divine Being in Christ. Those who would know God's benefits and God's blessings must recognize that God's benefits to man cannot be known apart from His functional Being. God's blessing is to bless us with Himself. God "has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph 1:3), who is the "summing up of all things" (Eph. 1:10).
Who God is and what God does are inseparable. His Being and His act must ever remain united. This is the point that epistemology fails to understand. Inherent in the rationalistic approach is a "separated concept" that detaches the divine Actuator from the divine activity. When natural theology deals merely with "ideas" and "concepts," then the "idea of God" cannot be equated or conjoined with the "idea" of divine effects (ex. salvation, sanctification, etc.). They stand alone, autonomously self-existent with independent functions. There is an isolation of divine effect that is explainable only as the mechanical result of the "idea of God." Separated into such constituent parts, Christian activity is construed as conferment or endowment of benefits. The divine act is disconnected from the divine Actor. Christian realities are viewed as products, commodities, "goods," or "services." A professor writes in a purportedly academic theological journal: "God has made payment for 'services' provided through Jesus Christ."2 "...an individual comes to Jesus...so he can receive what Jesus offers."3 "...salvation, security, assurance...He (Jesus) must deliver them."4
Misconceptions of this kind are based on an epistemological dualism of a dissected cause and effect. In the closed mechanistic system of Newtonian science, for example, there is a linear thought process that views empirical effects as inevitable results of necessary cosmic laws. The effect can be traced back to the cause but never to be considered one with the cause. The same epistemological dualism is seen in religious and theological reasoning. Religious effects may be traced to necessary universal spiritual "laws" such as the "law of faith" or the "law of prayer." Often there are legal and judicial concepts of Christ's benefits, as in the popular theological explanation of justification. Cause and effect are split one from the other. There may be mechanical source leading to static logical effect, or mythological source leading to ecstatic psychological effect, but there remains a "separated concept" both epistemologically or experientially.
The radical uniqueness of Christianity is in the ontological connection and cohesion of the divine cause or source and the divine effect. God, the divine source effects the expression of His Being. The divine effect is only as God sources such by His grace. God can and must be identified with, even equated with, His effects. His effects are the activity of His Being.
Christian theology must maintain the oneness of spiritual activity with the Spirit-source; God within His acts. There is no spiritual reality to that effected apart from the dynamic source-reality of Divine Being. To separate benefit from Being is to construct a false religious image which is not the vital living activity of God in Christ. Any religious act or idea, viewed apart from what God is doing because He is who He is, operating by His grace, expressing Himself by His Son, Jesus Christ, is necessarily sterile, static and severed from reality, as well as idolatrous, abominable and anathema.
Derivative man never generates Christian activity, or any activity for that matter, for the corresponding theodicy must understand the ontic connection and association of the unregenerate identified with the Evil one and manifesting his character of evil. The Christian, identified with God in Christ, is free to be functional human being in ontic relationship with the divine Being. In that contingency of faith-receptivity, God comes to dwell personally in man thereby giving to man being, nature, identity and image in interpersonal relationship with Himself, with His Son, and activating through man the expression of His own character unto His own glory.
Christianity demands an ontological understanding with an indivisible coherence of God's Being and His act. The dynamism of Christian grace wherein the activity of the risen Lord Jesus is operative by the Spirit is the heartbeat of Christianity. The very person and life of the resurrected Christ dwells in the Christian (II Cor. 13:5; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27), and that in order to manifest His life in our mortal bodies (II Cor. 4:10,11). Thus the dynamic function of God is restored within humanity, as He manifests His Being in the human being.
It will be instructive to consider a few basic themes of Christian teaching to consider the necessity of maintaining the connectedness of God and His working in Christ, and at the same time to expose examples of the disjuncture of such in popular evangelical teaching, resulting in deistic detachment and trinitarian deficiency.
Zane Hodges refers to "the gospel under siege"5 and John MacArthur decries the "erosion of the gospel,"6 but in their antagonism they both conceive of the gospel as a corpus of doctrinal truths. Joining the fray, Darrell Bock asserts that the "gospel is a precious truth"7 which must be "handled properly."8 Dave Hunt concludes that "the gospel...has three basic elements: (1) Who Christ is. (2) Who we are. (3) What Christ's death accomplished."9 This three point information-package is then said to "save those who believe it. Nothing else will save."10 He goes on to speak disparagingly of those who merely "receive Jesus."11 From his rationalistic perch, John W. Robbins explains that "the gospel is a creed. If we do not believe the creed, we do not believe Christ."12 Robbins continues by saying, "Christ identified Himself with His words. The words and the Word are identical."13 If Jesus' words, His teaching, His propositional and sentential instruction, are the formulation of the gospel, then it would be legitimate to refer to "the gospel according to Jesus," as does John MacArthur.14 In so doing, though, the gospel is separated from Jesus Christ and the "separated concept" of epistemology is evident. The gospel is thus detached from the active Being of God and devalued to but one belief-system among many, albeit the divinely revealed teaching rather than human wisdom.
The "good news" of the gospel is Jesus Christ! The gospel is not logical propositions, but the living Person of God in Christ. It is "good news" indeed that God has made available in His Son the restoration of the vital dynamic of His divine Being, that by the indwelling presence and activity of the risen and living Lord Jesus. Only in such an ontological connection is the divine intent of the gospel preserved. Gerhardt Friedrich explains that "the gospel and its content are one;"15 "the risen Lord is the auctor evangelii,"16 the origination and enactment of the gospel.
The gospel is the dynamic power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). Since the gospel is Jesus, and Christ is the power of God (I Cor. 1:24), the saving activity of God must not be disassociated from the function of the Savior.
Contemporary evangelical thought refers time and again to Jesus "bringing" and "delivering"17 salvation, as if salvation were the beneficial product which Jesus the "delivery-boy" came to provide. Darrell Bock refers to Jesus as "the divine dispenser of salvation,"18 apparently casting Jesus into a role similar to a bubble-gum dispenser or a medical dispensary. How often have you heard someone refer to another who allegedly "got saved," as if salvation were some "thing" that we get and possess or some static experience or event? These epistemological concepts rend salvation from the necessary coherence with the Savior, so that the historical redemptive work of the Savior is detached and separated from the present experience of salvation. The risen and living Lord Jesus and His on-going "saving life" (Rom. 5:10) become but an unnecessary redundancy, for salvation stands alone as a mechanical divine effect of an historically enacted event. God forbid that such should be promulgated in the name of Christianity!
Salvation cannot be separated from the Savior. There is no salvation apart from the on-going, continuous, dynamic saving life and action of Jesus the Savior. The divine source and the salvific effect are combined. His saving activity is Himself in action. Only when the Savior, Jesus Christ, is functionally operative in the Christian do we participate in the salvation process, being made safe from dysfunctional and misused humanity in order to function as God intended by His Being functioning in mankind. Salvation must be conjoined ontologically with the living Savior.
If we accept the popular definition of "grace" as a "gift" or an "undeserved favor," the factor of epistemological separation is again obvious. The divine Giver is set apart from the gift. An ontological consideration of grace recognizes that all that God gives is Himself, His own Being in action.
Grace is sometimes perceived as a mechanical instrument of causality, the "force" God employs to accomplish His desires. Grace has been viewed as the "threshold factor" that effected redemption which then allows for the individual effect of conversion. Some have explained grace as some "thing" God imparts as the parcels of His sufficiency are needed. Theologians have referred to the "infusion of grace," "the means of grace," the ecclesiastical "dispensing of grace." All of these are attempts to quantify grace, disassociating grace from God.
Grace is indivisible from God Himself. Grace is the self-giving of God in His Son, Jesus Christ. "Grace is realized through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17), and there is no grace apart from Christ. God does not act en dissecio or en partio. He does not act apart from who He is, apart from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
This divine expression of the Oneness of His triune Being can be applied to all other Christian themes also. Righteousness (justification) cannot be disjoined from Jesus Christ, the Righteous One (I John 2:1). Godliness cannot be isolated from the dynamic expression of God's character. Sanctification cannot be separated from the Holy One active by His Holy Spirit.
The gospel of salvation by God's grace is ontologically established in the Being of God expressed in His acts. The epistemological heresy which statically separates Christianity from Christ, and salvation from the Savior, must be repudiated.
Christians must cease to offer a "false bill of goods," an epistemological package of propositional truths and alleged spiritual benefits detached from the dynamic of God's grace and the living Lord Jesus. To explain the ontological reality of God's Being functioning in man relationally, Jesus Christ living in the Christian and working out salvation through the Christian, is most difficult since fallen man is accustomed to thinking only in natural epistemological categories. Even so, the Christian is compelled from within to share Jesus Christ, trusting that in the midst of such presentation God will ontologically reveal Himself to others by the Spirit of Christ.
Thomas F., Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian.
Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990. pg. 215.