Saturday, September 22, 2007

Presuppositional Epistemology

Over the past couple of days, I've been thinking about how necessary it is to examine the presuppositions upon which one's theology is based. The church today finds itself in a quandary over the importance of theology, with those in the charismatic movement finding it sufficient to have a warm, positive, affirming feeling toward Jesus, and those in the Emerging Church movement rejecting any systematization of doctrinal truth because of their rejection of certainty. Consequently, many who claim to be Christians have no grasp of authoritative biblical orthodoxy and how it should impact their lives.

A basic understanding of theology is necessarily crucial for every believer because truth and experience are related. While some would deny or question this connection, in the long run the truth will affect our experience. As Millard Erickson explains, the man who falls from the top of a ten story building may think as he passes each window on the way down, “Everything’s okay; I’m doing just fine,” and may mean it, but eventually the facts of the matter will catch up with his experience. Therefore, since the meaning and truth of the Christian faith will eventually have ultimate bearing on our experience, every believer must come to grips with them.

Foundational to the process of establishing what one believes about theology is epistemology; that is, the presuppositions and foundations of knowledge. In other words, it is the study of how one proposes to know what he knows and what his source of truth is going to be.

Throughout the history of theological study, two approaches have been taken. One begins by presupposing the object of knowledge—God; and the other begins by presupposing the means of knowledge—the Bible. However, to do such has often resulted in misunderstandings about the nature of each. For example, presupposing the existence of God without any sort of special revelation will end in a theology of deism; that is, an impersonal god whose existence and nature can be comprehended by human reason and personal experience. Man cannot know God apart from His special revelation of Himself, found in the Bible and in His Son, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3).

On the other hand, presupposing that man can only know anything about God by means of the Bible can create some theological missteps. One problem is that there are many places in the world where they don't have a Bible. Yet God states in Romans 1:19-20 "that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse" (NASV). The psalmist states, “The heavens declare His righteousness…” (Psalm 50:6, 97:6). So in our foundational epistemology, there must be an acceptance of God's general or natural revelation of Himself. That is not to say that those who only have general revelation are believers or can know Christ apart from the truth of the Gospel, but only that they can know the truth about God which He has revealed about Himself in nature.

Another problem is the difficulty of deciding what revelation is like without some prior idea of what God is like. How one interprets Scripture will be affected by how one conceives of God. If one does not presuppose an infinite, sovereign, all-controlling, true God who has communicated to man, he has no grounds for treating the Bible as more than simply another religious book.

Ultimately, no one will believe either in the God who is revealed in nature and explained in Scripture unless the Holy Spirit enlightens Him to do so. The Spirit uses both general revelation and special revelation to open our eyes to presuppositional truth about God and His Word.

Thus, in my epistemology, rather than beginning with either God or the Bible, I presuppose both as part of my basic thesis. I believe it is impossible for a believer to presuppose the true God without presupposing the truth of the Scriptures, and vice versa. My premise may be stated as such: There exists one Triune God, who by nature is sovereign, holy, loving, all-powerful and all-knowing; and who has revealed Himself to man in nature, history, human personality, and in His acts and words which have been preserved in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament canons. From that basic premise, I then proceed to establish my entire theological and doctrinal understanding through the exegesis of the Scriptures.

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