By Jim Pemberton
It was said by theologians in the Middle Ages that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. It is recognized that philosophy generated religious movements and Christian theology, in particular, was forged on the anvil of clashing philosophical movement. While we are admonished by Paul not to be swayed by the philosophies of men (Col 2:8), it is precisely in observing where people have been led astray with philosophy that we have learned what the scriptures do not mean.
In this light, it is helpful to understand philosophy so as not to be held captive by it. And it is in the study of philosophy that we learn that there are helpful categories for helping us understand the Bible correctly. In this series, I will talk about the central categories that help give us a foundation for understanding. Then I will discuss at least one of the philosophical systems that are leading people astray today.
How Do We Know?
Perhaps the most foundational area of philosophical thought is epistemology. The word epistemology literally means the “study of knowledge” and it deals with theories of how we know things. Epistemology is the answer to the question, “How do you know?”
I say it’s likely the most foundational area of philosophy because no matter what else you claim to be true in philosophy, or otherwise, you must be able to answer the question, “How do you know?” If you don’t have a good answer, you will have trouble persuading thoughtful people that what you say is true.
John’s first letter is an excellent book for learning about Christian epistemology. While the primary epistemological focus in on assurance of salvation, it is instructive on how we know not only that we have eternal life, but also how we can test the spirits as it were. I’ll leave an in-depth study for another day, but ask you to read through the book of 1 John and pay attention to the passages that talk about how we can know. Pay attention to what we can know and the prerequisites for knowing it.
A verse from the Old Testament that discusses how we get from knowledge to understanding is Proverbs 9:10:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (ESV)
I’ll credit Dr. Sam Waldron for the exegesis I’ll summarize here:
The LORD, Yahweh, is a reference to the God of the Covenant and by extension God’s immanent nature. That is to say that he is involved in our lives. As a Hebrew couplet, this meaning is held both in contrast with and in parallel to the designation “Holy One”. The word for Holy One is “Qedoshim” and refers to God’s transcendent nature. That is to say that he is above and separate from his creation. It is precisely in this dual nature of God that we can have certainty in objective truth although we must apprehend it subjectively.
The prerequisites are important. First we have “the fear of the LORD”. This is a reference to the realization that God is Creator and intimately involved in his creation such that we are powerless against him. He is to be feared, but also that he alone is to be trusted. Until we come to a place that we internalize this trust, we cannot claim true wisdom. Wisdom, of course, is the result of fearing the LORD.
The other prerequisite is knowledge of the Holy One. This is not all knowledge, but it is some particular knowledge. There are some who doubt the existence of a God that transcends the physical world. But inasmuch as we are given knowledge of him, and in parallel with the first line of the couplet to fear him on account of this knowledge, we can have insight or understanding.
The idea of a transcendent God begs the question that he is of a different type of stuff than we are. I will discuss this in the next article.