by Jim Pemberton
So what of the foundation for knowledge between the non-theist and the theist, particularly the Christian? (I acknowledge a difference between other theists and Christians because Christianity has a particularly compelling apologetic for revelation. I won’t discuss that here, however.) So I’ll start this article with a recap of some of the earlier material and use it to jump off into a comparison between Christian and non-theistic epistemology, or to say, “how we each know what we claim to know.”
Faith isn’t blind, it is reasonable
It is a non-theistic charge that “faith is blind”. That is to claim that faith fills in the gaps for what we don’t know. That definition of faith is called “fideistic”. But mature Christians hold to a different definition of faith. That is to say that we testify to having good reasons for believing what non-theists claim cannot be scientifically discerned. Any accurate and thoughtful review of church history will yield the depth of reason that has been employed in discovering the canon of scripture, the refinement of our understanding of what it reveals to us, and how we come to accept the veracity of the claims of scripture. Christian faith is anything but blind.
Faith as reason is demonstrated in the Bible
One of the ways that come to accept the veracity of the Bible is the fact that it is internally consistent. The definition of faith that Christians hold is demonstrated in the Bible. In places like Acts 17:2 and Acts 18:4, we see that Paul’s custom was to reason with people from the scriptures. Following suit, I’m doing that here. But faith is also given a definition of sorts in Hebrews:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV)
It’s interesting that the first thing in the list of things that happened “by faith” is an understanding of the creation of the universe. But I want to note that “assurance” and “conviction” are words of reason. Now it can be argued by non-theists that we can be assured and convicted of something that isn’t true. However, that argument misses the point that within the structure of a Christian worldview we have good reasons for our faith.
Basis of faith is the revelation of God
And every good reason we have for our faith goes back to our need for God to reveal himself. God could remain perfectly anonymous and let us simply do our own thing. If we speculated about him, we would have no basis for knowing whether we were right or not. However, if God wanted us to know about him with any certainty, he would need to earmark such revelation with enough evidence. Even then we wouldn’t accept it without being made alive such that we recognized our former deadness. This is the greatest evidence: that God’s revelation of himself to us also reveals the horrid truth about us. The Holy Spirit makes us able to acknowledge that the Bible is correct about who we are: sinners in need of a Savior. Once we accept that, we can begin to understand all the intricacies of who God is and what God has done.
Basis of knowledge for non-theist is limited
I spent a brief few chapters going through the scientific method and wrapped up with an equally brief discussion on the limitations of scientific discovery. As it is, scientific discovery is a formalization of how we have enough knowledge to survive in this world. If I cook food, there is an expectation that I a) need to cook the food and b) that I need to cook it a certain way and c) that I need to eat the food in order to live. How do I know those things? The reason is because we do it every day. When someone stops eating their health worsens until they die. When the food isn’t cooked right, it’s not fit to eat. When the food isn’t cooked, we often develop some illness as a result. These are regular patterns of life that we use to help us know what to do in order to live another day and to propagate our kind.
But those aren’t the only things we use. We also have drives. We have drives that tell us that we are hungry. We have drives that tell us that we need to remove waste from our bodies. We have drives that tell us to have sex in order to reproduce. These drives are not scientifically discerned. These drives don’t carry the kind of information that we need to satisfy them. But those drives are absolutely necessary for life.
The Christian has the tools of natural discovery plus revelation of God
Likewise, the Christian, as one made alive by the Holy Spirit, has spiritual drives. We have the desire to please God. We have the desire to worship God. We have the desire to proclaim God. How that happens is typically passed on naturally. So we have the same tools of natural discovery that non-theists have. However, we also have these supernatural drives to accept knowledge that we would otherwise rather deny.
Non-theists have the tools of natural discovery, but deny revelation of God
Non-theists have the same tools of natural discovery. However, they lack the spiritual drives necessary to acknowledge truth that is otherwise obvious. In denial of these truths, they must make sense of the world without these truths. As such, they can survive naturally for a time. However, inasmuch as God, as Creator, is a fundamental presupposition to understanding this world. Therefore, any conclusions a non-theist makes regarding the foundations of the world are immediately suspect.
If God exists
From a naturalistic standpoint, the question is whether God exists or not. If God exists, then any revelation from him would trump natural discovery. The reason is because natural discovery is limited and God is not. If God does not exist, natural discovery is still limited and there is no other source of certainty. The only challenge from this point is to investigate the claims of scientists who operate from a naturalistic presupposition and point out the limitations of their knowledge. When scientists fail to acknowledge these limitations, then we can be certain that they are doing so because the conclusions they want to be true involve a denial of the Creator they deny.
It can be observed that scientists who otherwise profess Christ fail to acknowledge the same limitations. They fail to recognize the authority of scripture on what we know. Indeed, there are Christians who are not scientists who have a belief that science is generally accurate, and they accept the conclusions of scientists as long as they can find some interpretation of scripture that allows the conclusion to stand.
Remember what I said, reasonable faith is like a set of spiritual drives. But it doesn’t give us a full set of knowledge on its own. There are the scriptures that give us sufficient knowledge. But it takes time for Christians to learn how to implement it and all Christians go their graves never fully mastering it all. So all Christians labor in ignorance. How much more do non-theists labor in ignorance. Nevertheless, non-theists are often able to convince some Christians they have truth when they don’t.
In the next article I will discuss another aspect of the relationship between faith in God and knowledge.