(The series so far.)
Some years ago I published a paper, entitled “Presuppositional Dispensationalism,”1 in which I attempted to summarize the biblical epistemological model with the illustration of four pillars.
Pillar #1 is the existence of the biblical God. As the first principal, the God of the Bible exists, and not merely as one god among many, but as the One who has disclosed Himself in such a way that His exclusivity is unavoidable. Further, He is characterized above all else by holiness (Isa. 6:3, Rev 4:8), and all that He does is to be understood through that lens. The recognition of this first principle does not advocate faith as the sole or final source of understanding truth;2 rather it is an invitation to step into the biblical perspective, to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8).
Pillar #2 is the principle that God has divinely and authoritatively disclosed Himself for the purpose of His own glorification, through general revelation (creation, Rom. 1:18-20), special revelation (the Bible, 2 Tim 3:16-17), and personal revelation (Jesus Christ, John 1:1-18).
General revelation renders every man without excuse, providing an inescapable awareness of God. But general revelation is intentionally incomplete and ineffective for providing regenerative grace—special and personal revelation is needed for that. In special revelation God chose human language as the vehicle for His self-disclosure. As evidenced by His use of it, language is a reliable medium for God’s communication. Consequently, insofar as God has revealed Himself in Scripture, He may be understood. As the product of the self-disclosing God who speaks with authority as the Creator, the Bible does not appeal to human reason nor to human experience as proof of its authenticity. Rather the Bible presents itself to humanity as possessing the requisite authority, and renders humanity accountable for our response to that authority. A central theme of the Bible is its description of God’s personal revelation through Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and provides for us the payment for and offer of life. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8).
Pillar #3 is the incapacity of natural man to comprehend (receive) God’s revelation. Of course, humanity can cognitively understand and experientially interact with general and special revelation, and is enlightened further in Christ’s incarnation (John 1:9), but just as natural man rejects that which we know about God through creation (Rom. 1:18-20), and just as natural man fails to receive the spiritual truths of the Word (1 Cor. 2:14), natural man likewise rejects God’s revelation in the Person of Christ (John 3:19). This is not just “Bob’s” (see Part 1) problem, it is yours and mine as well: without some type of additional divine aid, humanity consistently fails to receive that which God has revealed.
Humanity is characterized by sin, depravity, and brokenness (or deadness) in the apparatus for thinking, feeling, and choosing. Importantly, this is why simple mental ascent to biblical principles is not sufficient for accomplishing the fundamental change necessary. We don’t move from death unto life simply by means of thinking rightly. It is here that we see the limitations of epistemology: a correct understanding of the biblicaldesign does not save, even though it allows us to interact with and understand accurately the data we need. But God3 the Father draws (John 6:44), chooses (Rom. 9:15-16, Eph. 1:4-6), and calls (Gal. 1:4-6); God the Son reveals (John 1:9) and redeems (Eph. 1:7); and God the Spirit convicts (John 16:8) and enables (1 Cor. 12:3). There is divine enablement needed and provided, according to His own will, for overcoming the deficiencies of humanity inherited through sin.
Pillar #4 is the necessity of a consistently applied hermeneutic. Scripture claims God-breathed authority and has been revealed in particular known human languages that are composed of finite vocabularies and grammatical concepts. These two principles demand two corresponding hermeneutic principles: (1) that we understand the meaning of the text in the normal sense of these languages (i.e., the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic), and (2) that we are hermeneutically consistent in deference to the authority of the text, and in recognition that it is the Revealer who is enthroned and not the interpreter.
The conclusions derived through application of this natural way of handling the text are decisively premillennial and dispensational. Even opponents of dispensational conclusions admit that those conclusions are grounded in a literal approach. As outspoken non-dispensationalist John Gerstner asserts, “on points where we differ there is a tendency for dispensationalists to be literalistic where the non-dispensationalist tends to interpret the Bible figuratively.”4 Because the biblical epistemological model demands a consistent literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and dispensationalism is grounded in that hermeneutic more than any other theological system, in comparison to other theological systems, dispensational theology best follows the biblical epistemological model. But best isn’t good enough if dispensationalism is simply the least inaccurate of many inaccurate systems. We should not strive simply to be better than other deficient systems, rather we should strive to be biblically accurate in every aspect. Our pursuit is a more biblical theology, and that pursuit demands careful adherence to biblical epistemology. Bob doesn’t need a better explanation; he needs the truth!
Implications for dispensational theology
Sadly, in the past few hundred years of more formalized dispensational thought, it seems dispensationalists, in comparison to other theological traditions, have devoted little effort to epistemology. If one were to Google the phrase dispensational epistemology, they might be shocked (perhaps even appalled) at the novelty of the most popular results. That simple exercise is indicative of our historical deficiency in this area. Instead of doing our own work, and discovering a biblical theology from the ground up, working from sound (i.e., biblical) first principles, we have borrowed extensively from theoreticians in the Thomistic and Reformed traditions. Thomism is quite at home with rationalism, predating Descartes’ version. Reformed epistemology is not far removed from the biblical model, but Reformed theological pre-commitments (like replacement theology) are justified through methodological inconsistencies. As grand as are the successes of Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional thought, for example, his theologically driven hermeneutical inconsistencies are equally magnificent in their failings.5
Rather than depending upon inconsistently applied methodology for the discovery of our theology, it would be far better to ascertain a biblical methodology, to apply it consistently, and to allow the theological chips to fall where they may. In short, our loyalty must not be to a theological tradition—dispensational or otherwise. Instead, our loyalty lies where He tells us we find wisdom: in His word.
Now, of course, we recognize that the Bible understood through the lens of the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic produces dispensational conclusions. Of course we recognize that the primary hallmark of dispensational theology is its usually-effective commitment to being biblically derived, but we cannot with one hand claim to be biblical in our methodology when with the other hand we are methodologically inconsistent (unless we are willing to assert that the Bible itself prescribes an inconsistent method, and I, for the record, am not).
Dispensationalism is absolutely not a hermeneutic. It should be, on the other hand, simply the product of a methodology and a hermeneutic consistently applied. If we treat dispensational theology itself as a hermeneutical lens, then we are no better off than those who appeal to historical theology as their authority for understanding Scripture (as the Catholic Catechism prescribes its followers must do6). Consequently, the prescription for a more biblical theology is not that we do more theology, it is that we be more biblical—and that starts with a biblical epistemology, which reveals a biblical hermeneutic (literal grammatical-historical), and results in biblical conclusions.
Just as Bob stood amidst the dandelions looking for answers, we all face (consciously or not) the same epistemological questions as we take our first steps in the pursuit of truth. Unfortunately, often we don’t test the answers ourselves, deferring instead to the efforts of thinkers like Descartes, feelers like Hume, and willers like Nietzsche. In so doing, we fail to properly evaluate how first principles set the course of our entire worldview. This failure contributes to our own misunderstanding of reality—both in theory and practice, and it detracts from our ability to account for the sometimes-gigantic differences between us in how we understand that reality. Our epistemological differences are at the very core of our metaphysical and ethical differences. Whether we realize it or not, our disagreements are not grounded as much in conclusions as they are in our epistemological methodology.
If we are employing non-biblical methodology for explaining reality, then our conclusions will generally be incongruent with the biblical data. If this is so, then why have we given so little attention to these foundational issues? It is one thing to say that the Bible is our authority; it is another to actually do theology, philosophy and worldview—to do life—that way. When any aspect of our theology is grounded on any authority other than the Bible itself, it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that we will arrive at purely biblical conclusions. When we borrow from other worldviews to ground our theology, then we should not be surprised at the systematic inconsistencies that arise. On the other hand, if we answer the epistemological questions correctly, then we can base our subsequent steps on the proper authority. As a result we are able, by His design and through His assistance, to confidently verify truth. This makes Bob very happy.
1 Originally published as Christopher Cone, “Presuppositional Dispensationalism” in The Conservative Theological Journal, Volume 10, Issue 29 (May 2006), presently accessible with permission at http://www.drcone.com/2012/09/23/presuppositional-dispensationalism-part-1/, and later expanded into a dissertation entitled, “Prolegomena: A Survey and Introduction to Method in Theology, Beginning With Presuppositional Epistemology and Resulting in Normative Dispensationalism,” and is presently available in its revised and expanded form as Prolegomena on Biblical Hermeneutics and Method (TSP, 2012).
2 Thus biblical presuppositionalism is not subject to the charge of fideism.
3 Notice that in the two key biblical discussions of how we move from death unto life, the transition is introduced by the words, “But…God” (Rom 3:21 ; Eph 2:4).
4 John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Morgan, PA: Sole Deo Gloria, 2000), 93.
5 One example of such inconsistency is in Van Til’s equating of Israel and the church, a characteristic one people of God doctrine within Reformed theology, and one that Van Til assumes, rather than defends: “The Israel of God was tired of building alone, and was gradually accepting of more aid from the Samaritans. The antithesis between the church and the world was dying out” (from Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Philllipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1969), 61.); “Here, in the midst of this people Israel and nowhere else, the true obedience, the true patience, and the true hope of faith was found. As in the ark the family, the church, and human culture were preserved and redeemed” (from Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Philllipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1979), 25.); “Christianity is here as elsewhere restorative. And this is true of the Old Testament dispensation as well as of the New” (from Cornelius Van Til, “The Ten Commandments” (65-page syllabus from Westminster Theological Seminary, 1933), 58.).
6 See Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), Prologue III:11; Part 1, Article 2:III:92; and especially Part 1, Article 3:III:113.