What You Think You Know

Epistemology -- the study or discipline of demonstrating why one believes what one believes -- is one of my favorite subjects to engage. Often, we claim to know a person or a belief or an event, but then we lack sufficient evidence supporting our claim to knowledge proper. There are, therefore, claims that require faith to sustain a justified true belief. For example, we cannot show a skeptic or an atheist God in person, but we can offer justifiable claims for faith in God (or Christ, or the afterlife, or spirituality).

Many Christians hold every single one of their beliefs as of primary importance, in a do-or-die vein, as though if even one of those beliefs is questioned, or challenged, then their entire faith is undone. This ought not be. There are core doctrines of the Christian faith to which all believers should adhere: that there is one God, in three equally-divine and co-eternal Persons, who has revealed God's self in the divine Person of Jesus Christ, who died to take away the sin of the world, and who will return to bring about eternal justice and rightness. All of our core beliefs are settled in the existence of God, in Christ, and in inspired Scripture. These issues are of primary significance to the faith.

There are, then, beliefs of a secondary nature. These beliefs are significant but are not essential for being a Christian. The manner in which one is baptized, or how one perceives of the elements of the sacraments, or how a church should be governed (through an episcopacy, presbytery, or congregation or pastor) may all be debated and disagreed upon without the conclusions dictating whether or not one is a genuine Christian. There are, then, beliefs of a tertiary (third in order) nature. Some of these issues may include the extent or practice or belief in all the spiritual gifts used today among believers, one's views of end-times events, one's political or social or human sexuality views, the dating of Christ's birth or opinions as to young earth or old earth theory. None of these issues should divide believers from fellowship and love. Respectful dialogue and disagreement is more than merely permissible.

But, for some (fundamentalist or fundamentalistic) Christians, every belief is of the utmost importance. One conservative evangelical Southern Baptist and conservative Republican woman, taught her entire life that Christians drinking alcohol even to very small degrees was sinful, was shaken when that belief was challenged recently. "You mean you can drink now and still go to heaven?" was her reply. For her, only godless liberals and Democrats drank alcohol, certainly not Christians and Republicans. (That is no exaggeration. She actually believed this.) I will sum up what angers me about evangelicals: their interpretive arrogance has given them an unjustifiable license to make costlier claims to truth than their demonstrations to prove them can afford. Often they boast of absolute truths, but neglect the context of perspective and culture, and display a vanity and swagger of unpropitious proportions.

Let me use the subject of homosexuality as an example. Conservative evangelicals are dogmatically certain that the homosexuality referred to at Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1 (and Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, 20, and Judges 19) maintain the same exact reference as we know homosexuality today. But there are several aspects to this interpretation that need to be considered. We are not permitted to assume (presume) knowledge of a cross-cultural perception without being guilty of interpretive hubris. Dr. Scot McKnight, from his book The Blue Parakeet, writes that, more often than not, it is
a person [rather than, strictly, an idea or a proposition] who enters into our world that shakes up our thinking that gets us asking this question [of how one is to "live out the Bible" today]. Perhaps we encounter someone who speaks in tongues or someone who thinks they can heal others or a friend's daughter who is a lesbian and also a Christian [perish the thought!]. It's one thing to say we think homosexuality is sin, but it's completely different when we know a gay or a lesbian and that someone happens to ask us why we believe in Leviticus 20:13a but not in [Leviticus 20:13b] -- the first prohibits homosexuality [in some frame of reference] and the second insists on capital punishment for it. Or if we are asked why we think the instruction from nature in Romans 1 about homosexuality is permanent and applicable today, but the one in 1 Corinthians 11 is evidently disposable.
Dr. McKnight exposes the double standards inherent in evangelicalism: I am suggesting that the double standards derive from an epistemological and, hence, an interpretive (and hermeneutical) arrogance and an unwarranted modern presumption of ancient and perhaps an obscure or abstruse reference toward the subject of homosexuality. So, then, what evangelicals claim to know about the subject may, perhaps, be nothing more than a wrong and misinformed opinion.



But let us also consider what we even mean by using the word "know." In a technical sense, the word "know" indicates a direct perception that is grasped with the mind, true and practical in nature. When we refer to scientific knowledge we infer an understanding from what can be observed. In this sense, then, a Christian cannot know the existence of God. The Christian cannot walk up to the entity we call God and study (interview and verbally and intellectually engage) God, observe God, and thus prove to the world the existence of God. Therefore to insist that God exists is pure and unadulterated arrogance. We think God exists; we believe that God exists; and by "God" we mean the Christian and triune God. But our knowledge of God is derived from the Bible. Can we experience God?

St Paul writes: "For his [God's] Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God's children." (Rom. 8:16 NLT, emphasis added) How, exactly, does the Holy Spirit affirm our inner spirit that we are God's children? This bespeaks of an experiential hermeneutic (the art or science of interpreting events or texts): i.e., that we can interpret this spiritual affirmation via the experience of the inner activity of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God, then, somehow confirms within our mind (or heart) that, by grace through faith in Christ, we actually are in present reality children of God. According to the apostle, this type of experiential knowledge is valid, and is not subjective. Though other experiences can or may be relative or subjective, spiritual or otherwise, this affirmation of being adopted as God's children is a knowledge that we can maintain.

To suggest, however, that one knows God exists because God lives within the heart is an overreach. Why? Because the type of knowledge referred to by many is a scientific knowledge based upon observation. They will not accept your claim to God's existence based upon you feeling in your heart that God dwells within. In this sense, then, what you maintain is a justified true belief: you have evidence from the Bible that justifies a belief in that particular God. But this perspective affects your other beliefs as well.

You may think that you understand homosexuality from the stance of Moses and St Paul; or you may think you understand young earth theory and "know" that it is biblical; or you may think you understand and experience the spiritual gifts mentioned at 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; or you may think that the Baptist Faith and Message or the Westminster Confession of Faith is the most biblical standard of confessions; but there can be a vast difference between what you think you know and what is actually true. All I am asking is that you (and I) adopt a bit more humility regarding secondary and tertiary convictions -- biblical or otherwise. May we, with grace, state what we believe and then offer evidence for the belief. But may we also avoid dogmatic and unwarranted claims to knowledge when what we really mean is "I think," or, "I believe."

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Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 20.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.