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A biblical epistemology
The first epistemological statement in the Bible is actually made by the serpent in the Garden: “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Satan prescribes knowledge through contradicting God’s design for knowledge. The fact that Satan chose epistemology as an early battleground underscores the strategic significance of epistemology in God’s design.
In this context Satan challenges Eve to consider a different starting point than God had prescribed, and if she does, Satan promises, Eve will have a better outcome—that her knowledge will be more complete, even to the point of making her godlike. While the actions Satan prescribed did result in particular knowledge (Gen 3:22), it was a distortion of God’s design for knowledge and resulted in tragedy and not blessing. These events invite the reader to inquire as to God’s ideal for human knowledge, and the answer is provided especially in the writings of Solomon, to whom it was granted to be exceedingly wise (1 Kings 3:12).
In the book of Proverbs Solomon identifies the first epistemological step undergirding a biblical worldview: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 1:7); “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov 9:10); and again, “The fear of the Lord is the instruction for wisdom” (Prov 15:33). The word for fear is the Hebrew yirah, and does not simply denote respect, but is the term normally used of fear—as in fear for one’s life.1 In context, the fear of the Lord involves the right perspective of and response to God.2 Though Solomon uses a different word for fear in Proverbs 28:14, the contrast to appropriate fear is hardness of heart.3 In short, the fear of the Lord involves the inner man’s responsiveness to God. Notice the critique of the atheist in Psalm 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart (Heb., leb) ‘There is no God.’” The fool is unresponsive toward God, and sets his will against God, whereas the one who would possess wisdom acknowledges God and is responsive to Him.
From whence comes the fear of the Lord? “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth comes wisdom and understanding” (Prov 2:6). If the first step or first principle of biblical epistemology is to fear the Lord, the authoritative source for the data we need to do so is identified as Scripture itself—a revelation which presupposes the existence of the biblical God, and makes no effort to defend that first and most vital principle. So when Bob begins to read the Bible, he discovers therein the limitations of human reasoning—and thus, the inadequacies of rationalism (Gen 6:5; 1 Cor 2:14); he encounters the limited scope of human experience and of the uninformed arrogance of naturalistic empiricism (Job 38:4, 34-35, 39:26-27, 41:11, 42:5-6); and he discovers that there is indeed discernable meaning and truth—noumenal reality, created and revealed by God, and relevant for everyday human life—even if God hasn’t revealed its fullness (Ecc 3:11; Jn 20:31; James 3:17-18; 1 Jn 5:13).
Bob is left with an important choice, and he must choose between mutually exclusive first principles: rationalism, naturalistic empiricism, existentialism, or biblical presuppositionalism.4 Each of the four claims to be the arbiter of truth, and each demands presuppositions regarding the nature of evidence. Rationalism requires total trust in human reason, naturalistic empiricism is premised on the complete reliability of the senses, existentialism demands practical certainty in the idea that there can be no certainty, and biblical presuppositionalism bids us trust in the words of a book that Bob found in a field of dandelions—a book that claims to be God’s word, and the only way to have certainty regarding who and what we actually are. Whichever of these options Bob selects will—if he is consistent in its application—set the course of his entire worldview, whether he realizes it or not. C’mon, Bob. We’re counting on you. Do the right thing. But Bob has a problem, and, having read the book, he is beginning to understand that problem.
1 E.g., Gen 15:1, 32:11; Prov 3:25, etc.
2 Discussions regarding the fear the Lord are found also in the NT in passages such as Romans 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:11, 7:1; Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:17; and Revelation 14:7.
3 The Hebrew leb, translated here as heart, is generally used to reference the heart, mind, will, and/or inner man.
4 The term “presuppositionalism” is borrowed from Cornelius Van Til, and is employed here to account for the idea that the Bible presupposes, rather than defends, the existence of God, and that according to the Bible the proper understanding of reality depends entirely on and works from the acceptance of that presupposition—that the God of the Bible exists. In other words, whereas rationalism argues to God, and naturalistic empiricism and existentialism argue against God, biblical presuppositionalism argues from God.