The “Two Book” Theory of Knowledge

For those who haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to get your hands on the latest issue of Trinity Review; The White Horse Inn: Nonsense on Tap. Many will read the piece and probably dismiss it as an attack on the White Horse Inn and its executive producer, Shane Rosenthal. Unfortunately those same people will miss the point of the piece which is a refutation on multi-source theories of truth and knowledge. Many Christians, and not just Shane Rosenthal, believe that while the Scriptures are necessary and sufficient for certain truths, they are not a source for all the truths that can be known. Most Christians believe, almost reflexively, that there are many other truths that we learn and know quite apart from those limited to Scripture or even their necessary inferences. While all Christians would agree that the Scriptures are true, most reject the idea that the Scriptures have a monopoly on truth. While all agree that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” most assert and believe there are other sources by which we might come to know the truth quite apart from Scripture.

What interests me about the piece are the objections raised to the long held notion that general revelation is somehow cognitive and that we come to knowledge – even knowledge about God – through sensation and observation. In reaction to the idea that there are “two books” of knowledge, specifically general and special revelation, Dr. Robbins observes:

All defenders of epistemological pluralism play with words. If truth is a property of a proposition, and only a proposition (which it is), then what is the meaning of the statement that “general revelation contains truth”? When Rosenthal looks at the sky, do the stars spell out English sentences for him? Perhaps Greek and Hebrew sentences . . . When Rosenthal examines an oak leaf, does he find there the opening verse of Genesis, like opening a fortune cookie? If not, then Rosenthal is equivocating on the word “truth.”

Since the literal meaning of “general revelation contains truth” is ludicrous, what does the statement actually mean? It means that natural men, using natural means, can derive truth from nature. How they do this, Rosenthal does not explain. He merely asserts it. And that is what Scripture denies, as we have already seen. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. They are not open to inspection except by those to whom Christ reveals them. The world through wisdom did not and cannot know God.

If only propositions can be either true or false and Scripture contains only true propositions, since they reveal the mind of God (or, properly, part of God’s mind) who is truth itself and who cannot lie, why is it that Christians routinely insist that knowledge can and is revealed by natural means apart from the special revelation of Scripture? All truth is God’s truth, right? Well, hidden in that question is a more basic epistemological question about how truth might be known apart from those truths God has already revealed in Scripture? Some, of course, argue that God continues to reveal new propositional truths even daily through the ongoing Charismatic gift of prophesy and others deny that truth is even an attribute of propositions at all. While we can leave charismatic utterances and mystic trances aside for now, most prevalent are those who assert that the tools of science reveal other truths not found in Scripture. The belief is that while saving knowledge comes from Scripture, knowledge of nature and creation comes through observation of general revelation. This raises another even more interesting question and a serious problem for those who hold to this two (or more) source theory of truth: How can one arrive at true propositions from observing something which is non-propositional, say, like, observing the heavens? Dr. Robbins further observers:

A cursory acquaintance with the rules of logic would make it clear to Rosenthal and his friends (and to all empiricists) that propositions, that is truth, cannot be derived from something non-propositional. Unless one starts with propositions (that is, declarative sentences), one can arrive at no truth whatsoever. Propositions – and truth is always propositional – can come only from propositions. This poses an unsolvable problem for all empiricists, for they begin with something called sensation. But the problem is completely avoided by Christians, for they believe, as Scripture says, that God is Truth itself, and he reveals truth to men in propositions, not sensations. The Second Person of the Trinity is the Logos, the Reason, the Wisdom, the Logic of God. He created the world . . . Truth cannot be derived form anything non-propositional. Unless one starts with truth, with propositional revelation, one can never arrive at any truth. Unless one starts with Scripture, God will remain merely a suppressed idea.

The idea that Scripture contains “religious” or “soteriological ” truths and general revelation provides other truths is to beg the question. Gordon Clark demonstrated years ago (see The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God) that rather than a means by which truth might be arrived at and known, the methods of science consist of a tissue of fallacies that can never account for the truth of any conclusion. Dr. Clark put this point in the most provocative and starkest terms by asserting that all science is false. Of course, he not only asserted that all science is false, but spent about 100 pages demonstrating why. That’s not to say that science doesn’t work, it does, but Christians should be interested in knowing and defending the truth, not merely being apologists for what works. Christians are supposed to be truth seekers, not pragmatists, yet their apologetic methods often belie an adherence to the latter and to their shame. Rather than all truth is God’s truth, perhaps a better way to turn the phrase is as Dr. Robbins has done elsewhere; God’s truth is all truth. With this in mind, Dr. Robbins explained the proper role for science in a Christian world view back in 1996 in his piece “A Lie in My Right Hand -Idolatry and Empirical Apologetics” :

Natural science has a proper place in a Christian view of men and things: The purpose of science is to enable men to subdue the Earth. But science cannot lead us even to truth about the universe, let alone truth about God. The history of empirical philosophy and apologetics is the history of the attempt to climb from Earth to Heaven, of building a tower from Earth to Heaven, of confounding Earth and Heaven.

But, if science fails to obtain truth (an idea clearly scandalous to nonbelievers and even some believers alike), by what other method can it be found? 2 Tim 3:16,17 says; “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Scripture alone is sufficient for the man of God, yet it seems that for many Christians this is a truth that is particularly hard to swallow. Peter also compares Scripture to a light shinning in a dark place. But, if truth, even truth about God, is available to the natural man then the world is not really a dark place at all and Peter is guilty of hyperbole. Sadly, many Christians evidently believe – even if they don’t say so explicitly – that Peter was overstating the situation he describes in 2 Peter 1:19. When it comes to knowledge and truth the world really isn’t a dark place at all, but is, at worst, a dimly lit place as many – even Christians – suppose. Some will even quote 1 Cor. 13:12 incorrectly suggesting that general revelation (even special revelation) is akin to looking through a glass darkly.

Well, what about Romans 1? Paul tell us, “ For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Doesn’t this teach us that men learn of God and in fact know God through observing creation? Dr. Robbins explains:

This misunderstanding of the Bible, especially Romans chapters 1 and 2, goes back at least to the “Angelic Doctor” of the Roman Catholic Church-State, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that when the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans he was endorsing Aristotle’s pagan theory of knowledge called empiricism. But Paul was doing no such thing. Romans 1 and 2 do not teach that men learn truth about God or anything else from sensation, but that God has given men innate (see Romans 1:19 and 2:15) propositional information about him, which they suppress in unrighteousness (see Romans 1:21-23, 25). Not only does Rosenthal (and many others) misunderstand Paul’s teaching about innate (not learned by observation) information given by God, but he also implies, and his arguments rest upon, the assumption that men do not suppress this information in their sin.

According to Paul men suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness and “did not like to retain God in their knowledge . . . .” Paul tells us in Corinthians that “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God . . . .” Consequently, those who assert that Romans 1 tells us that men know God not only fail to understand that Paul is talking about an a priori in man that convicts them and is something that all men by nature suppress in sin, but they also equivocate on the word “to know.” One cannot both know and not know God in the same sense and at the same time. Consequently, what Paul has in mind in Romans 1 is something less than knowledge in the sense of true belief with an account of its truth. Paul tells us that men possess innate truths about God, even the law written on their minds, and it is these innate propositions that convicts them and leave them guilty before God apart from Christ. Men can be said to “know” God in the sense of having an understanding or an awareness of God (i.e., all men have a sense of right and wrong, their minds consists of the forms of logic and they recognize A cannot be both A and non-A, etc.), even if they cannot account for the truths within them apart from the work of the  Spirit and the Word. Instead of glorifying God, they suppress and obscure these truths, even if they can never fully eradicate their innate awareness of Him.

Calvin said all men possess a sense of the divine, but a sense of the divine should not be confused with knowledge of the divine. Unfortunately, many Christians confuse the two and their apologetics and witness suffer. Men do not know God in the sense of having a justified true belief of Him. The so-called proofs of God’s existence are all fallacious. Apart from God’s self-revelation in Scripture men cannot know the truth about anything.

Knowledge, like salvation, is the gift of God and it can be found in no other way than but by having a mind in submission to His word.

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3 Comments on “The “Two Book” Theory of Knowledge”

  1. [...] The “Two Book” Theory of Knowledge The “Two Book” Theory of Knowledge Posted September 24th, 2007 by Sean Gerety Categories: Theology For those who haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to get your hands on the latest issue of Trinity Review; The White Horse Inn: Nonsense on Tap. Many will read the piece and probably dismiss it as an attack on the White Horse Inn and its… …. more …. [...]

  2. brandon Says:

    Calvin said all men possess a sense of the divine, but a sense of the divine should not be confused with knowledge of the divine. Unfortunately, many Christians confuse the two and their apologetics and witness suffer. Men do not know God in the sense of having a justified true belief of Him.

    Would you say that God’s innate revelation of Himself to Adam prior to the fall was justified true belief, knowledge?

  3. Sean Gerety Says:

    I don’t think Adam could account for the a_priori endowment within apart from direct revelation either before or after the fall.

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