Biblical Epistemology 101
I find it strange how many who claim to hold to the biblical epistemology of Gordon Clark fail to understand even the first principles of his theory. For Clark knowledge requires an account. That is, for a proposition to rise to the level of knowledge it has to be justified. Clark is not alone as Greg Bahsen writes:
Beliefs that are arbitrarily adopted or based upon faulty grounds, even when they turn out to be true, do not qualify as instances of ‘knowledge’ … What is the additional ingredient, besides being correct, that a belief must have in order to count as knowledge? It must be substantiated, supported, or justified by evidence. Knowledge is true belief held on adequate grounds rather than held fallaciously or haphazardly. To put it traditionally, knowledge is justified, true belief. [Van Til’s Apologetics, pg. 178]
Where Clark differed from Bahnsen was on the question of evidence as Clark maintained that Scripture alone provides both the content and account for knowledge. Apart from the axiom of Scripture knowledge is otherwise unobtainable and all secular epistemologies end in skepticism not knowledge. This includes even the widely esteemed claims of science; the crown jewel of empiricism. Clark is not alone in this either as Karl Popper observed:
First, although in science we do our best to find the truth, we are conscious of the fact that we can never be sure whether we have got it. We have learnt in the past, from many disappointments, that we must not expect finality . . .But this view of scientific method . . . means that in science there is no “knowledge”, in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense which implies finality; in science, we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth. What we usually call ‘scientific knowledge’ is, as a rule, not knowledge in this sense, but rather information regarding the various competing hypotheses and the way in which they have stood up to various tests; it is, using the language of Plato and Aristotle, information concerning the latest, and the best tested, scientific ‘opinion’. This view means, furthermore, that we have no proofs in science (excepting, of course, pure mathematics and logic). In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and for ever the truth of a theory – The Problem of Induction.
The inability to arrive at final truths is the definition of skepticism, which is why Clark concludes; “Instead of being the sole gateway to all knowledge, science is not a way to any knowledge.”
There are two basic objections to Clark’s theory. The first is that it begs all questions and that the axiom of Scripture is too broad and allows men to account for everything from the laws of logic, ethics, politics, metaphysics, soteriology, the principles of economics (see John Robbin’s excellent lectures “Introduction to Economics” and “Intermediate Economics”), and more. Clark responds that is exactly what an axiom or a first principle should do:
It is their function to cover all that follows… Euclidean geometry many have six axioms and a hundred theorems. The axioms imply the theorems, to be sure; but the theorems are not axioms. The distinction between axioms and theorems is for the purpose of arranging derivative truths under a basic or comprehensive truth… Thus an all inclusive axiom that swallows everything at one gulp is most desirable. An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, 63.
Not surprisingly, this is precisely why so many Christians are attracted to Clark’s epistemology since it reflects in philosophic terms Paul’s affirmation concerning the truth of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16,17:
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.
It also is a theory of knowledge that best conforms with Peter’s affirmation that Scripture is “a light shining in a dark place” and is a principle that we would do well to heed even in epistemology. Clark does this in spades; much to the chagrin of even many thoughtful Christians.
The second major objection to Clark’s uniquely biblical epistemology is from the opposite direction and that is that the axiom of Scripture from which all knowledge is derived is simply too narrow and cannot provide an account for things we ordinarily believe to be true. Clark’s immediate reply to this objection is:
As has been shown, secular epistemologies cannot provide for any knowledge at all, therefore whatever revelation gives us, however restricted, is to be received with thanksgiving.
However, not being content with Clark’s answer (and evidently not particularly thankful for revelation as the sole source of knowledge either), this is where even those attracted to Clark’s theory chafe. The reason is simple, and one that was constantly used to attack Clark throughout his career: if knowledge is limited to Scripture as the axiomatic starting point and its necessary inferences or theorems, where does that leave everyday knowledge even those propositions with eternal consequences? For example, can I even know that I am a saved man? Well, the short answer is no. I realize this is shocking to even many Christians, but assurance in one’s own blessed state is a psychological state of mind derived from the promises of the Gospel. It is a confidence that as the Westminster Confession rightly observes may be “shaken, diminished, and intermitted.” If “Sean Gerety is a saved man” could be inferred from the axiom of Scripture it’s hard to see how it may be “shaken, diminished, and intermitted” as it would as fixed and as final as the propositions of Scripture themselves. Nothing could cause my knowledge that I’m a saved man to cease for even a moment, yet the WCF says my assurance may be “intermitted.” Clearly assurance, as important as this doctrine is for the Christian life, isn’t synonymous with knowledge. So what happens to arguments like:
Whosoever believes in the Son has eternal life
x believes in the Son
x has eternal life.
The above argument is valid, but is it sound? The major premise is true and is an object of knowledge since it is taken directly from John 3:36. No argument here. The problem lies in the minor premise which may or may not be true and is one that I like to think is true of me. But, even if true, unless it can be accounted for it does not rise to the level of knowledge. It should be obvious that if I start with Scripture as my axiom, and no matter how much I would like it to be otherwise, I cannot infer the proposition or theorem “Sean Gerety believes in the Son” from Scripture. Of course, I could tell you that I so believe, but why should you believe me? Even though my hope is that my name is written in the book of life, my name is nowhere found in Scripture (check your concordance). Besides, didn’t the Lord say through His prophet Jeremiah; “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Couldn’t I just be deceiving myself? This is why Paul implores us to examine and test ourselves to see if we “are in the faith.” Federal Visionist and other heretics hate this kind of introspection and consider it morbid. They want to know, objectively, that they and their congregations are saved so the solution they propose is not that of the WCF XVIII, their solution is “Look to your baptism.” Of course, Paul also warn us to have “no confidence in the flesh” and he certainly had the pedigree to do so if such a thing were possible. Besides, I’ve known plenty of people over the years who at one time claimed to be Christians, and who I even thought were Christians and suspect were even baptized too, but who turned out to be not what they appeared.
Recent examples would include professor and philosopher and one time winner of the Clark Prize in Apologetics, Michael Sudduth, who revealed last year that he is now a Hare Krishna. He fooled a lot of people over the years into believing that he was a Christian and I’m guessing he even fooled himself. Another good example might be former PCA pastor Jason Stellman who led the prosecution against Federal Vision heretic Peter Leithart. Not only did I believe that Stellman was a Christian minister dedicated to defending the truth of the Gospel, I contributed financially to help in his failed prosecution of Leithart. So you might say I put my money where my mouth is. Not surprisingly, I was shocked and dismayed when he announced his rejection of sola scriptura and sola fide along with his defection to Rome immediately following the Leithart trial.
I would think all this is an obvious and if it’s admitted that we cannot know who God’s elect are, the same applies to us even when we look in the mirror. Yet, when George Macleod Coghill made this point on a “Clark” Facebook discussion group, even adding that “all knowledge has to be truth, but it is not the case that all truth has to be knowledge,” a number of self-styled “Scripturalists” went bonkers. Even people like former Trinity Foundation Worldview Contest winner Ryan Hedrich, a young man who claims to be in “broad agreement” with Clark’s epistemological views, if not much else, took issue with Clark’s theory at this point (so much for any “broad agreement). Hedrich said: “I do have true knowledge about myself. ‘I am regenerate’ is a proposition I can and do know.” Now, admittedly, this is assertion from a young man who has recently come out of the closet rejecting the Trinity and the doctrine of God. Needless to say I tend to be considerably more skeptical concerning Hedrich’s claim even if I wish I could be more charitable. Frankly, I find it hard to think of any Christian church that would find Hedrich’s profession of faith credible for membership. The point is, and despite his bravado, unless a person like Hedrich can provide an account for how he arrived at the knowledge of his own regeneration, it appears to me to remain an opinion, and, in this case, one I have little confidence in as should he. Besides, how can anyone be so arrogant to ignore Paul’s warning to the Corinthians; “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” I would think that would be enough to humble even a Trinity Foundation Worldview Contest winner.
Consequently, there are countless everyday propositions which we accept as true but for which we cannot account. That doesn’t make them untrue, it only means they are not strictly speaking, knowledge. As Clark explains:
What account shall be given of everyday “knowledge” that common sense thinks is silly to doubt? Don’t I know when I am hungry? Can’t I use road maps to drive to Boston to Los Angeles? Indeed, how can I know what the Bible says without reading its pages with my own eyes? It was one secular philosopher criticizing another, who said that knowledge is a fact and that any theory that did not account for it should be abandoned. But all such criticisms miss the point. The status of common opinion is not fixed until a theory has been accepted. One may admit that a number of propositions commonly believed are true; but no one can deny that many such are false. The problem is to elaborate a method by which the two classes can be distinguished. Plato too granted a place to opinion as distinct from knowledge; he even admitted that in some circumstances opinion was as useful as knowledge with a capital K. But to dispose of the whole matter by an appeal to road maps that we can see with our own eyes is to ignore everything said above about Aristotle. An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, 90.
To repeat; “all knowledge has to be truth, but it is not the case that all truth has to be knowledge.” Scripturalist epistemology 101.Gordon Clark, Theology