Christians and Knowledge of God

How do you know that your existence is real and that you are not really just a brain floating in solution in a jar inside the lab of some mad scientist? How do you know truth and reality? I don't mind confessing that the nature of these questions were bothersome, loathsome, and burdensome to me in Philosophy classes in college. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Who cares? I appreciate practicality in lieu of endless and unwarranted speculation. But the question What is truth is a vital one for us all to consider.

However, truth and reality are primary issues not merely for theoretical purposes but for our practical lives, and we benefit by thinking about epistemology (how we know what we claim to know) and hermeneutics (how we interpret texts and events). I am far less concerned about existing as a brain in a vat in the lab of some imagined mythical mad scientist than I am about "knowing" truth and reality. For if truth is that which corresponds to reality, then to attain truth is to also discover that which is real, and what is reality is to be embraced regardless of our particular or subjective feelings about reality.

How does the Christian know that God exists? Believe this or not, that is a loaded question, and the question already and inherently presumes the existence of God. What we mean by know is paramount here: for to maintain knowledge of any given object is to perceive directly, or to grasp with the mind, clearly and certainly the object in question. (link) We have never clearly and certainly observed with our eyes corroborating with our minds the triune God. In what sense, then, can we claim to know the triune God? St John writes:
If you love me [Jesus is speaking directly to His disciples here], you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. (John 14:15-17, emphases added)
So the believer in Christ is taught that she can know the Holy Spirit because the Spirit of God (we know elsewhere taught that this occurs by grace through faith) abides alongside and within her. What type of knowledge is being inferred? In a Christian worldview we perceive of knowledge of God in terms of faith, in terms of a metaphysical epistemology, and in terms of a justified true belief. Any believer who claims to know God, or the existence of God, must concede that this so-called knowledge is not observational proper.

Through the scriptures, people of faith for over five thousand years have claimed to have encountered God in some form or fashion, and thus we recognize today that God does not operate in such fashion as God once may have: "Long ago God spoke [directly] to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son." (Heb. 1:1-2) To suggest that one knows God because God lives within one's heart is not the same sort of knowledge by which we know and understand the existence of molecules and how molecules operate. Believers in God through Christ know God by a metaphysical or experiential hermeneutic: we sense God at work in our hearts and minds.

For example, St Paul writes, "When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God." (Rom. 8:15-16) There is a spirituality at work in the believer by which he or she may sense that, by grace through faith in Christ, he or she is a child of God. Such a one senses that the word of God, the Bible, is also at work within one's heart and mind. (1 Thess. 2:13) The believer, by an experiential hermeneutic, confesses to know God and, hence, to know truth and reality, for God not only properly contextualizes truth but is Truth. (cf. Isa. 65:16) Jesus is Truth Incarnate, Truth Personified, Truth Defined. (John 14:6) The Holy Spirit is named the Spirit of Truth. (John 16:13)

Now, these conclusions are claimed by believers through grace by faith in Christ and experience God by faith, but they must adhere to a consistent understanding of knowledge by means of justified true belief. Scientists tend toward knowledge of any given object by means of observation: what can be observed can be known. Since we cannot, therefore, observe God then we cannot maintain any so-called scientific (absolute) knowledge of God if a God even exists. Here is where a sharp distinction must be made between knowledge and justified true belief. None of us has observed God under our cognitive microscopes.

St Peter writes: "Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls." (1 Pet. 1:8-9, emphases added) Note what he does not write: "and even though you do not see him now, you know him and rejoice." Rather, he writes, "and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice." Christians may claim to maintain justifiable reasons for this belief, and properly frame our knowledge of God by the measure of faith, but we cannot insist on the knowledge of God by observation. How can we, then, claim to know truth and reality?

Truth is that which corresponds with reality. A person either uttered or did not utter a particular statement. We may know the truth of an utterance by observation (hearing or reading the words). We understand relative truths such as that which is hot or cold, warm or cool, and lukewarm. One person may think the temperature in a room is warm while another perceives the temperature as cool based, in large measure, on the temperature of one's body. We also understand relative truths such as preference. One person may enjoy a movie or certain music while another does not enjoy the same movie or the same selection of music. Our relationship to truth (e.g., room temperature, movies, music) may vary without diminishing reality. But what of propositional truths and reality?

Even regarding propositional "truths" we must categorize and make proper distinctions. Propositional statements of faith, like the existence of God and whatever belongs to the metaphysical, must be considered as merely justified true beliefs. The results of such will vary person by person depending upon the individual who grants preference to various options in that category. (Religious or Spiritual persons belonging to several categories will claim truth and reality to their opposing or contrary worldviews.) There are mathematical truths that are propositional by nature and cannot be denied. (1+1 will always equal 2.) There are scientific truths that are also propositional by nature and cannot be denied. (The energy created by the Sun's core will always consist of nuclear fusion.)

Matters of faith, however, must always be viewed with great humility, honesty, and transparency. We Christians maintain that the scriptures inform our faith. The Old and New Testaments record a narrative of believers from Moses to the post-Resurrection lives and ministries of Christ's apostles. We, to this day, still devote ourselves to "the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers." (Acts 2:42) We believe that we hold the truth because we believe that our God contextualizes and properly defines truth. We also think that our belief is justified and we base our knowledge of truth and reality upon such. But we have to humbly confess that people of other faiths also think that their belief is justified and that they base their knowledge of truth and reality upon such.

Still, we seek to inform the nations -- even those who claim a different justification for their beliefs -- of the Good News of Jesus Christ, that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised again to new life so that we may all share in this new and eternal life by grace through faith in Christ. We encourage all to live into this reality by faith with thanksgiving and we trust that God is working within the heart and mind of each individual whom we encounter. We also pray that God will continue to humble us as we seek to understand truth and reality in ways to which we have heretofore been blind. We are hereby neither coerced to concede relativism proper nor to advance pluralism. We merely embrace our human limitations and trust in an honest ideology and spirituality that honors truth, reality, and God our Creator that corresponds with our main source of revelation: Scripture.


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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.