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Foundations for interpretation

bible-08Some of mankind’s most enduring questions have been those surrounding the topic of epistemology, or the study of knowledge. What is true knowledge? Where does it come from and how do we obtain it? Are some forms of knowledge more authoritative than others? 

Throughout history, man has sought to understand reality (ontology) and how we can know this is so (epistemology). From the pre-Socratics to their namesake, from Plato to his infamous student, Aristotle, from Kant to Nietzsche – a major part of Western philosophy has been the question of, “How can we know what there is to know?” As we will see below, Christianity is no different.

A  primer in Christian epistemology

A distinctly Christian epistemology is grounded in revelation – God stopping down to our level to communicate truth to us. While modern philosophy believes that man possesses all that he needs (his autonomous reason) to scale the summit of reality, Christianity is a little more pessimistic about man’s ability to reason their way to Knowledge. Due to the noetic effects of sin, we are prone to bias and hubris in our philosophical pursuits. At risk of oversimplifying – we need a helping hand in our epistemology.

In Christian theology, there is a distinction between God’s two books –  general and special revelation. General revelation is the truth of God as revealed in creation and providence – his existence, wisdom, power, goodness, and righteousness perceived through the things around us (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p41). All man has access to this level of truth through a logical and scientific interpretation of the world. What we choose to do with these truths – suppress or embrace – is an entirely different matter.

Special revelation, or God’s second book, is his authoritative written Word as found in the Bible. This provides particular knowledge about God, salvation and the human condition that we attain through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, correcting our systematic distortion of general revelation at the same time (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p40).

An important question then arises – how do we, as fallible human beings, faithfully interpret what God is communicating to us through his Word? If God’s general revelation can in some ways be interpreted through reason and the scientific method, how should Christians approach his covenantal Word? To our detriment, various philosophical trends have attempted to answer this question for us and we may not have even noticed.

Philosophy check

The development of postmodern thought in the 20th century has lead to a form of linguistic reductionism where words are removed from their context and given an entirely different meaning from that of the original author. Rather than the locus of meaning being found in the author’s intent, it is now found in the interpretation of the reader. “What does this text mean to you?” becomes an all-to-frequent question at Bible studies.

Christians are naturally affronted by this turn of events and seek to reclaim the meaning of the author for interpreting texts. The reaction to this postmodern hermeneutic is often not balanced – instead of reclaiming ground via a convincing interpretive framework, the reaction to this textual twisting is to force texts through a grid of literalism that the Bible does not require. Passages containing clear figurative language are interpreted literally and much confusion abounds.

Think about your own experience – we use turns of phrase and figures of speech constantly. Do we ever interpret these with the same degree of literalism that we enforce on Scripture?. A few examples will suffice:

  • “Are you getting cold feet?”
  • “I’ve been kept in the dark on that one”
  • “Speak of the devil”
  • “She has a bubbly personality”
  • “You got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”
  • “He let the cat out of the bag”

Why would we demand a literal interpretation of all biblical texts, regardless of form, if we don’t do this in our everyday use of language?

A more holistic approach is required – one that takes into consideration the original languages, literary features, historical context, redemptive-historical context, and theological truths to name a few. The Bible is definitely more than a text to be critically interpreted, but it is no less than this and so we should seek to interpret faithfully and in a way that does honour to author and Author alike.

Assurance of salvation

Assurance of Salvation: 3 Reasons Why Apologetics Fails

If someone asked you right now “How certain are you that you are going to heaven?” what would you say? Could you put a number on it? This is what is known as Assurance of Salvation, the knowledge that God has saved us from our sins and that we are in a right relationship with Him.

Now for an Apologist, one given to studying the supporting arguments and evidence for Christianity, the temptation is to give the very arguments themselves the role of being the ground of assurance of salvation. For example, it is demonstrable from arguments like the Kalam Cosmological Argument that a space-less, timeless, immaterial, and immensely powerful personal being exists, who we call God. When this argument is conjoined with the historical evidence for Jesus Christ, God is shown to be the God of the Bible, a being who loves the world and sent his son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of sinners, rescuing those who accept the offer of salvation from eternal judgement (Romans 10:9-10, John 3:36, Acts 4:12). However, using arguments and evidence as the sole ground for assurance of salvation fails for the 3 following reasons:

  1. The conclusions of Natural Theology are disputable
    The conclusions of the arguments and evidence for the existence of God are very powerful, and if true, have a great deal to say about our lives and the world around us. However, many of these conclusions are supported by premises that are not absolutely certain, and as such, the conclusion cannot be absolutely certain either. If this is true, though we may believe beyond a reasonable doubt, we can never have complete confidence that we are indeed saved.
  2. Our ability to reason is fallible
    It is clear that human beings do not have impeccable reasoning abilities. We often construct flawed arguments and make judgement errors. Can we really place full confidence in our own ability to reason? Now this is not to say that we cannot reach true conclusions in which we have a great deal of confidence, for if we could not, then it is odd that I would be writing this article seeking to persuade you of what I believe on this topic. I think what I believe is true, and that I have good reasons for it. I am not trying to argue that I am right even though I don’t know I am right. Rather, I mean that what we arrive at using our own reasoning, we ought to never simply assume as absolutely true. We must always be willing to admit we are wrong, and since certainty cannot exist where the possibility of being wrong is present, one cannot have absolute confidence.
  3. We have a limited and often errant experience and perception of the world
    It is clear that we are limited and do not fully know the world around us. Some people have more knowledge than others while still other believe and have been taught false ideas. If one needed to have perfect knowledge of the world to truly believe in God, no person could ever fully believe. Moreover, many people have no evidence and some even believe that the evidence points away from God. Are we simply to assume that they are not justified in believing in God simply because of what they think they know? Surely not! God is not so cruel as to allow us the possibility of fumbling around in the dark, without any hope of seeing the light.

For these three reasons, I am skeptical of anyone who claims they are certain of the claims of Christianity simply by arguments and evidence, and nothing more. God is not a God who abandons us to the whims of our fallible faculties which we use to make probabilistic judgements on sometimes errant information. Scripture asserts that we can KNOW that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13). If arguments and evidence do not provide this, we must look elsewhere for the sure foundation of our belief. The purpose of Apologetics is actually somewhat modest. Instead of using it to know Christianity is true, we rather use it to SHOW that Christianity is true. However, this leaves the knowing position quite open, and that which fills it is what I will address in my next post.

Is Certainty Necessary for Knowledge?

Adam Omelianchuk offers a simple illustration from Jason Stanley to show why the answer is no.

Why don’t skeptics apply their standards of evidence to themselves?

We had a spirited debate on miracles in a previous thread. And during that debate, I noted how even in cases where all the evidence is against naturalistic explanations, skeptics simply cannot entertain a supernatural explanation instead. They just have to hold that there is a naturalistic one, despite the evidence.

The very definition of blind faith.

In reply, “Tom Joad” said:

To that, I would just say that you would expect there to be a natural explanation for unexpected events, or ‘miracles.’ In the absence of an obvious explanation, it would be a fantastically interesting process to find out what the actual cause was.

Since the comments in the previous thread have now closed automatically, let me pick up the conversation here.

Why is Tom applying such a different standard to himself as he’d apply to religious people? And why does this seem to happen so frequently with skeptics?

For example, skeptics often take issue with phenomena like “speaking in tongues” and “faith healings” and the like—which you’ll find in many happy-clappy churches, particularly in America.

They point out that these phenomena can be reproduced in non-religious settings, as well as in competing religious settings (Hinduism for example). Moreover, they can be thoroughly explained by neurology, and therefore a supernatural explanation is at best superfluous.

So they criticize Christians who believe that these events are “works of the Spirit” on two grounds: firstly, all the evidence points to a naturalistic explanation; secondly, the Christian’s supernaturalistic explanation is too exclusive to account for all the instances of this phenomenon.

Thus skeptics hold that it is irrational to favor a supernatural explanation over a natural one here.

But now compare this to Tom’s comments about miracles, and notice the double standard.

When it comes to a situation where the roles are reversed and all the evidence points to a supernatural explanation, while a naturalistic one is untenable, he seems to think that it is not only rational, but entirely reasonable to believe there still is a naturalistic explanation.

And he goes on to make some comments about the supposedly unreasonable nature of faith, inasmuch as if some particular miracle is discredited, “for 99% of Christians, this disproof of a supposed miracle would do nothing to dissuade their faith.” The implication, of course, being that a discredited miracle ought to give Christians occasion to reevaluate their faith.

But why? Notice again the double standard. Imagine if some element of evolution were discredited—indeed, this happens all the time as part of the scientific process. Does Tom think these occasions should cause him to reevaluate his belief in evolution? Are they likely to dissuade him from from that belief?

Of course not.

So why expect that of Christians? Since the faith of 99% of Christians doesn’t rest on some random miracle, but on a wide variety of evidences, it would be quite unreasonable to think that discrediting a random miracle would have any effect whatsoever on their faith.

Why do skeptics have such a hard time applying the same standards of evidence to themselves as they think are reasonable for Christians? I don’t know. Perhaps some skeptics could enlighten me in the comments.

How to Know Who Should Take an Outsider Test and When

John Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) has become rather infamous. More infamous than is warranted, since Matt Flannagan (among many others) has shown its incoherence. But ignoring that, Paul Manata now crushes the OTF‘s relevance by asking the question: should we take it, or shouldn’t we? “The answer, if you’re wondering, is that hardly anyone should take an outsider test.”

James Anderson on the Transcendental Argument

For those who are interested in the merits of the transcendental argument for the existence of God (also known as TAG), James Anderson has posted an interesting article “No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument: A Response to David Reiter” on his site. The essay, which will appear in the summer issue of Philosophia Christi, is a response to Reiter’s claim that the transcendental argument is either insufficient or superfluous.

Are logical arguments evidence?

It is said that an argument will convince a reasonable man, and a proof will convince even an unreasonable man. So why do so-called atheists insist upon evidence? In a previous discussion, a claim was made that logical arguments are not evidence. Here I want to unpick that comment and see if we can find a way of thinking about the relationship between evidence and logical arguments that is helpful.

First I want to draw a distinction between two different types of evidence. First there is physical-evidence. This would be material stuff, such as bullet shells, exit wounds, DNA, photographs, lab results, etc. All of these would be available, either directly or indirectly to the five senses.

I take it that it was this type of evidence that was meant by the claim logical arguments are not evidence – that is, physical-evidence. Such as an arrowhead in cave can be said to be evidence for human habitation of that cave. Or that a shivering of a body can be said to be evidence it is cold.

What is troubling is that if physical-evidence is a necessary for knowledge, then we should know nothing of moral truths, aesthetic values, and meta-physical intuitions. Yet surly we do know that torturing babies is wrong, open graves are macabre, waterfalls are sublime, that the past is objective and other minds do exist. The Achilles heal of this particular epistemological theory is it is self-referentially incoherent. If its reasonable, then its unreasonable by its own merits. For no physical evidence is able to to reveal that evidence is required for reasonable belief. If it could be rationally affirmed and were true, then the Christian would be in an awkward position, for a further implication would be there is no hope for reasonable belief in non-physical entities. In fact the criteria, if adopted, would rule out the possibility of attaining reasonable belief in non-physical entities before any discussion or debate began.

There must therefore be something terribly wrong then with the criteria. Which is why I’d like to draw our attention to another type of evidence called argument-evidence. Evidence is broadly speaking that which lends support to a proposition or claim. Argument-evidence is any reason given for believing something is true or false. That is not to say that all argument-evidence is good evidence. That is just to say that arguments can count as evidence, in that they too give support for believing some proposition or claim. There can of course be counter-evidence that could dissuade belief.

For those not inclined to accept this distinction I have drawn between and physical-evidence and argument-evidence, and those who disagree with me that arguments can count as evidence, it will be useful to consider the following.

Physical evidence doesn’t speak. That is to say, all physical-evidence passes through the filter of an interpretative lens, and, perhaps unnoticed by the advocate, acquires certain meaning that was not intrinsic to the object or event itself. More colloquially, material objects have no voice to tell you what they signify. Everything is interpreted by a person who brings with them additional premises from their world view and store of experiences.

We have all gone through what its like to say one thing, and for two people to hear totally different things. A fossil will tell a paleontologist one thing. The same fossil will tell the next paleontologist another thing – sometimes even used to support mutually exclusive theories. Yet if physical-evidence was all there was available for investigation, how is it then that disparate theories can arise over the same object or event?

What happens is that somewhere between an objects discovery and its interpretation additional premises are added. These premises combine to form arguments. One hopes of course that these arguments are logical. Different premises given by different perspectives lead to different conclusions. Thus, in a way, all evidence is argument-evidence, for the physical-evidence, if left to itself, remains silent and tells us nothing.

Meditation in a Toolshed

Does being a Christian forever disqualify you as an appropriate authority on the truth of Christianity? If I wanted a true account of the Christian religion, would I do better to try see things as a Christian, or as a fair-minded secular religious studies professor? C. S. Lewis provides a helpful illustration in “Meditation in a Toolshed”[1]

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

C. S. Lewis seeks to combat the idea that it is better to evaluate the truth of a worldview (to slightly change the metaphor) by looking in from the outside. Lewis observes that this “modern” idea has been swallowed and assumed without discussion for the last fifty years. If this idea were correct it would be disastrous for the Christian, for how then can one be confident of their religious belief?

Let us go back to the toolshed. I might have discounted what I saw when looking along the beam (i.e., the leaves moving and the sun) on the ground that it was “really only a strip of dusty light in a dark shed”. That is, I might have set up as “true” my “side vision” of the beam. But then that side vision is itself an instance of the activity we call seeing. And this new instance could also be looked at from outside. I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in a shed was “really only an agitation of my own optic nerves”. And that would be just as good (or as bad) a bit of debunking as the previous one. The picture of the beam in the toolshed would now have to be discounted just as the previous picture of the trees and the sun had been discounted. And then, where are you?

In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled.

He calls the idea that we should only be confident with just one way of knowing – such as by looking at things – “rot.” He concludes,

. . . we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. . . we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking. We do not know in advance whether the lover or the psychologist is giving the more correct account of love, or whether both accounts are equally correct in different ways, or whether both are equally wrong. We just have to find out. But the period of brow-beating has got to end.

1. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 212

Are Faith and knowledge functionally opposite?

Greg Koukl of apologetics ministry Stand to Reason writes,

In an odd sort of way, Christians have abetted atheists in their efforts to cast doubt and even derision on believers. Here’s how.

Atheists have tremendous confidence that science will continue its record of silencing superstition. As knowledge waxes, foolishness wanes. Consequently, there’s no need for sticking God in the so-called “gaps.” Science will fill them soon enough.

Atheists are buoyed in their confidence by what they consider an inverse relationship between knowledge and faith. The more you have of the first, the less you need of the second.

Faith is merely a filler for ignorance. As knowledge increases, silly superstitious beliefs are discarded. As science marches forward, ignorance will eventually disappear and faith will simply dry up.

Simply put, faith and knowledge are functional opposites. The only place for faith, then, is in the shadows of ignorance.

Ironically, this same perspective has been promoted by Christians themselves. “If I know that God exists,” they challenge, “or that Jesus rose from the dead, or that Heaven is real, then where is room for faith?” Note the same inverse relationship between knowledge and faith held by atheists: Faith and knowledge are functional opposites.

This view is obviously false if you pause to think about it. The opposite of knowledge is not faith, but ignorance. And the opposite of faith is not knowledge, but unbelief. It’s certainly possible to have knowledgeable faith and ignorant unbelief.

More importantly, the knowledge vs. faith equation is not what the Bible teaches. In fact, Scripture affirms just the opposite. In this month’s Solid Ground, I lay out the case that biblical faith is based on knowledge, not contrary to it. Once you see the textual evidence, I think you’ll agree that faith and knowledge are compatible, shoring up our confidence in the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

With confidence in Christ,

Greg Koukl

(Greg recently has recently interviewed author David Berlinski about his book, The Devil’s Delusion that has just been released on paperback. This was very interesting discussion and recommended. Listen Here.)

Science, God and the Bible

In my previous post I was responding to objections of Joel Hilchey to my article entitles “The Argument from Evolution.” I gleaned five principle objections but abstained from writing about science and God for space issues. Here is the remainder of what I had to say in response to that area. To Joel, if it seems like you’ve been caught in the line of fire, that’s only because you have provided a lot of intellectual tinder for my guns.

 

Science, God and the Bible

You charged that the Bible offers nothing scientifically relevant. I disagree on the following grounds.

1) The Bible provides epistemic grounds to ensure the success of science.

2) The Bible provides motivation for the pursuit of scientific truth. 

3) The Bible anticipates scientific discoveries. 

 

1) The Bible provides epistemic grounds to ensure the success of science.

The idea of God does not stymy science at all, but invigorates it. It was the Christian worldview that first opened the door to the modern scientific era. The understanding that a rational God created a rational universe along with rational man, who could understand it made science flourish for almost 400 years. 

Almost every major field of science was founded by a Christian, working specifically from a Christian worldview. Consider Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics; William Turner, the father of English botany; Johannes Kepler, the planetary laws of motion; Galileo Galilei, the father of modern astronomy; Rene Descartes, philosopher and mathematician; Blaise Pascal, physicist and mathematician who defended the scientific method; Robert Boyle, the first modern chemist; Louis Pasteur, inventor of the pasteurization method; Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics; Lord Kelvin, important in Thermodynamics; Max Planck, the founder of Quantum mechanics, and the list goes on. 

Before the scientific renaissance no religion or worldview provided epistemic grounds necessary for the success of science. To put it crudely, atheism gives us an irrational universe and a monkey’s brain to comprehend it. Agnosticism gives us nothing concrete to pin down even basic assumptions like the principle of uniformity or that we can know truth at all. Polytheism provides an irrational universe subject to the irrational gods who inhabit it. Theravada Buddhism denies the existence of the enduring real world to be known, and the enduring self to know it. 

The necessary preconditions of science are consistent with the Christian worldview. These are the rationality of the world; the existence of value; the reliability of the mind, and that the senses are generally truth-worthy.

On the Christian view God created the universe and placed man in it to subdue it and to rule over it – science was born in Eden. The purpose of man is to have dominion over all the created works of God (See Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8:6). Then God decreed “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, to search out a matter is the glory of kings (us).” Proverbs 25:2. He also gave us an inquisitive and creative mind to search out answers for all manner of problems. 

With society becoming more and more post-christian, if we are not about to see a collapse of the modern scientific era, it will only be because scientists refuse to discard theistic presuppositions. C.S. Lewis writes:

Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. In most modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already appeared—the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim that science is true. We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the Scientific Age.1

 

2) The Bible provides motivation for the pursuit of scientific truth.

Dr. William Lane Craig writes; 

For as Christians we believe that all truth is God’s truth, that God has revealed to us the truth, both in His Word and in Him who said, “I am the Truth.” The Christian, therefore, can never look on the truth with apathy or disdain. Rather, he cherishes and treasures the truth as a reflection of God Himself.2

As Christians we believe that the author of science and the author of the Bible are the same. Therefore, good science shall find the fingerprints of God. That does not mean the theist has any advantage over an non-theist scientist, apart from what is pointed out in 1). Craig goes on to say; 

Nor does his commitment to truth make the Christian intolerant. . . on the contrary, the very concept of tolerance entails that one does not agree with that which one tolerates. The Christian is committed to both truth and tolerance, for he believes in Him who said not only, “I am the Truth,” but also, “Love your enemies.3

See the humility of Sir. Isaac Newton, a deeply committed Christian, after completing his great work Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica; “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

He understood that seeking scientific truth was not the sole domain of the Christian, but that scientific truth showed the beauty and wonder of not only God’s creation, but by extension, God Himself. Science, for the Christian, carries with it an extra dimension. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler said that through his study of the Universe, he was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

 

3) The Bible anticipates scientific discoveries

 – Against the prevailing scientific views of the time Isaiah 40:32 states “God sits above the circle (sphere) above the earth.” 

 – Written at least 2000 BC, Job 26:7 says “He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.” 

 – The first law of thermodynamics, energy conservation, was not established until 1850 but was predicted in Genesis 2:2 when it said “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”

 – The second law of thermodynamics, energy deterioration, was predicted over and over. In Matthew 24:35 it says “Heaven and earth will pass away…”

 – Creation ex nihilo is predicted in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” the word created (bara’) in Hebrew means ‘to form from nothing.’ 

 – That twentieth century science has confirmed that time and space themselves began to exist in Big bang cosmology, is also a radical conformation of Genesis 1:1.

 – Isaiah 55:10 speaks of the water cycle, not confirmed untill it was at last provided by Bernard Palissy (c. 1510-1590) in his 1580 book Admirable Discourses, which cut through all previous misunderstandings. Ecclesiastes 1:7 “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.”

 – If your in Virginia look up the statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury. Beneath you will find an inscription that reads; “Matthew Fontaine Maury, Pathfinder of the Seas, the Genius Who First Snatched from the Ocean and Atmosphere the Secret of Their Laws. His Inspiration, Holy Writ, Psalm 8:8, Psalm 107:23,24, and Ecclesiastes 1:6.”

 

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles: a preliminary study (London, Collins, 1947); p. 110.

2. William Lane Craig, ‘In Intellectual Neural’ (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6597; retrieved 24 October 2008) 

3. Ibid