Epistemological Foundations for a Biblical Theology, Part 2

Read the series so far.

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.

2837 reads

There are 4 Comments

CLeavell's picture

The question still stands, where did Bob learn to read? He opens the Bible and cannot make sense of the marks on the page.

For the sake of argument imagine he was sprinkled with "fairy dust" (not helpful in a discussion on epistemology) and can read. The words would still have no meaning to Bob. When he arrives at the part of Genesis where the woman is brought to Adam, he has no conception of what a woman is. When he reads about a man leaving his mother and father and being joined to his wife, the words would have no meaning for him. He has no experience with which to give meaning to the words mother and father. 

When Bob reads "the Lord is my Shepherd," it would not teach anything to Bob because he does not have any mental conception of sheep or shepherds.  

Aaron Blumer's picture


For sake of the point Chris is making, as I understand it, Bob is a simplified example. The nature of our minds is the relevant point there, and given the nature Chris is asserting, Bob would have invented reading and writing eventually or discovered it eventually. So we meet him after that point. I'm not sure this would be Chris' answer, but something along those lines.

What you mention after that are gaps in vocabulary. You don't have to know what a particular word means to know that there is a word, a unit of meaning, there that someone is trying to communicate with. If the larger point is that the nature of our minds directs us toward a written revelation, the Bob metaphor works even if we do not entirely understand that revelation. He would be able to figure out that he ought to understand it and get to work to that end.

...but I'm definitely looking at it quite simply. For the most part I tend to jump into epistemology with several major givens already in place and quickly find that I'm not smart enough (or something) to solve the deeper questions to justify the givens.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

CLeavell's picture

The problem with the example of Bob is that it undercuts the conclusion Cone is trying to make. If you assume that Bob invented reading and writing or eventually discovered it, you would have a whole lot of rationalism and empiricism taking place before Bob could make any sense of the marks on the pages of the Bible he finds. So, which is dependent on the other? It seems Cone is saying that Scripture is prior to experienced reality and I am saying that is an impossibility. He seems to pit general revelation against special revelation.

I like how Rolland McCune explained their relationship in his Systematic Theology. “It (general revelation) forms a background and prerequisite for special revelation. In this respect general revelation and special revelation are correlative; they are mutually dependent and when understood correctly, are mutually fruitful.”

So I do not think these articles are very helpful in developing a Christians understanding of epistemology. A much more helpful direction would be to search out how general revelation correlates with special revelation rather than seeing them as “mutually exclusive.” ​

Aaron, Thanks for the reply.  

Aaron Blumer's picture


I think I see the difficulty...

Bob examines his surroundings and he finds himself standing in rolling sun-drenched fields of dandelions under a beautifully clear mid-day sky. Of course, Bob has no knowledge of what anything around him is or what any of it means, because this is the first time he has ever encountered any of these things. Bob begins to ponder. “Here I am, I suppose, now what?” Bob has to figure out how to answer that question before he takes his first step, lest he make the wrong assumptions and step in the wrong direction. He begins a quest to decipher the right understanding of who and what he is, and how he must proceed, but he isn’t certain of whether or not he has the right tools for the task. In fact, he isn’t certain of anything.


He opens [a Bible], and recognizing that the words on the pages are orderly and expressive representations of meaning—just like his own thoughts are—he begins to read in Genesis.

As an illustration, it may not work all that well, because it raises so many more questions in the process of what it answers. I don't think Chris' point is to say that general and special are mutually exclusive though. More to show the inadequacy of D, H and N.

The views of Descartes, Hume, and Nietzsche represent three prominent epistemological perspectives undergirding worldview. For Descartes, reason is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and we can know with certainty by the proper use of reason. For Hume, experience is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and we can know with certainty through sensory verification. For Nietzsche, we cannot know with certainty, therefore we must simply pursue what is valuable to us.

I'll have to see if I can get Chris to interact a bit on this... I get the impression that he wants Scripture to work sort of retroactively so that it supercedes in authority the experiences (and hard wiring/reason) necessary to read it. So Bob would indeed have to do some experiencing and, clearly, some reasoning. In time, these would come first, but when he discovers special rev., he then elevates it above the things that led him to it.

This sounds a bit like what you have McCune doing as well.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.