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Not By Epistemic Works,
Lest Any Should Boast

Douglas Wilson

[COMMENT:  This is a good piece on Biblical epistemology...  in which the God we know is a person, not an impersonal essence or idea or state of being.   E. Fox]

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Topic: Postmodernism (Pomo)

In his essay on "Nietzsche As a Theological Resource," Westphal says some things about particular and finite knowledge that reveal the heart of confusion in much pomo-friendly writing. He makes the point that knowledge of the Absolute does not bestow absoluteness on that knowledge. In this, he is quite right, as far as it goes. But in making this point he uses the misleading illustration of knowing the Grand Canyon. The fact that I am thinking about the Grand Canyon does not make my thoughts "deep." An attribute of an object known does not automatically transfer to the one knowing. This is quite true. I do not grow taller by thinking about redwoods, and so on. But I do get to know my wife by talking with her.

The problem is that the triune Absolute is not an inert substance, out there somewhere, waiting to be known. The Absolute is not an undiscovered law of physics. The triune God is a personal God, who reveals Himself to us. He is the other half of a conversation.

The question is therefore not whether a particular, bounded, and finite knower can become Absolute by thinking thoughts about the Absolute. Of course not, and don't be silly. The question is whether it is possible for the Absolute to communicate Himself truly (not exhaustively) to particular, bounded, and finite knowers. My epistemic limitations are not God's. Can God make an axe head float? Can God make bread fall from the sky? Can He make the Red Sea part? And can He make a sinner like me know certain things with confidence? Of course He can. He is God. The subject we are debating is not whether we can discover things autonomously, but rather whether God can talk.

The radical (and very much hidden) assumption in all this is that we are somehow responsible to discover what God is up to by autonomous philosophic means. And when we discover, as some pomos think they have, the limitations of philosophy in this, we think that we have discovered God's limitations also. But this, as a seventeenth-century divine would have said, followeth no way. If I am chained to a dungeon wall, it would follow from this that I cannot touch the jailer's nose, even if he comes down and stands right in front of me. I am limited, bounded, chained. I can't move. Okay, so how would it follow from this that the jailer cannot touch my nose?

God doesn't reveal everything to us. There are an infinite number of things that are beyond us in principle (e.g. how God spoke the heavens and earth into existence, or the math that went into the hypostatic union). There are an infinite number of things that are beyond us as a simple matter of fact (e.g. how many atoms there are right this nano-second in the cubic foot at the center of Saturn). There are things that are beyond us because they are still far in the future (e.g. what the resurrection will look like). There are things that are beyond me because they are going on in South Caroline instead of here in Idaho. And there are things that are not beyond us at all because they have been given to us. And this is the issue. Can God give a creature knowledge that the creature is then responsible to hold on to with assurance? The answer that Scripture gives to this question, from Genesis to Revelation, is yes. I cannot conquer knowledge, and if I pretend to have conquered it, I cannot hold onto what I think I have done. But if knowledge is a gift, then I can hold and have what I have been given. And the fact that others in this pomo age are losing what they thought they conquered should not make me uncertain about what I have been given.

Westphal has a bad case of epistemic dry rot. In trying to answer the objection that to adopt this posture is to "abandon the kerygmatic mission of theology, to cut the gospel out of the gospel . . . We cannot ask the clergy to say, 'This is how it looks from where I stand,'" Westphal responds with a "But St. Paul talks that way" (p. 293). The apostle says that "our knowledge is partial, that we see as in a riddle." This confounds the difference between the humility of partial but true knowledge and the arrogance of relativizing all human knowledge. The apostle talks this way about some things, not about all things.

The apostle does see through a glass darkly on those things that had not been given to him to fully know. But when it came to those things which had been revealed to him, given to him, bestowed on him, he did not shuffle around with the faux-humility of a relativist. Not even close.

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity. I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting" (1 Tim. 2:1-8).

Let's make the apostle a little more pomo-humble, shall we?

I would request therefore, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and angst-wrestlings, be made for all men; this should even include, imo, kings and others in the post-colonial power structures; that we may lead a quiet life in what we have thus far simply assumed to be godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, as those who pretend to have a God's eye view of things would like to have it. For God will have all men to be as muddled as we are, and to come unto the "knowledge" of our current perspectives. For there is one God, I am pretty sure, and one mediator between God and men, which is an assumption that is also working pretty well with how I currently see things, the man Christ Jesus; Who may have given himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time when someone with a better grip than I have shows up. Whereunto I am ordained a declarer of hollow kerygma-speak, and I think I was ordained an apostle also, (I speak the unfolding vantage point in Christ, and am not conscious of lying, but, you know) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and other forms of blind void leaping. I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up questioning hands, without epistemic idolatries, including perhaps even this one" (1 Hesitations 2:1-8).

In Scripture, assurance is a gift. It is grace. When graces are taken out of their natural context, they of course become idols, and, like all idols, they let you down. But they do not remain graces when they have been removed in this way. The modernist attempt to guarantee knowledge is condemned because it is epistemology by works. But we know what we know by grace through faith alone, lest any man should boast. The modernists wants to know by works. The postmodernist doesn't want to know. The postmodern condemnation of this is as hostile to knowledge by grace as the modernist is. The modernist rejects knowledge by grace because it is by grace. The postmodernist rejects it because it is knowledge. But Christians know better.

Posted by Douglas Wilson - 9/19/2006 4:00:50 PM
 

 

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