Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Epistemology or Methodological Amnesia?

In today’s post, we begin with a quote from Christian apologist John M. Frame:
Scripture actually has a great deal to say about epistemology, or theory of knowledge. It teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10; 15:33) and of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). “Fear” here is that reverent awe that yields obedience. It is based on the conviction that God is Lord, and we are his creatures and servants. He has the right to rule every aspect of our lives. When he speaks, we are to hear with the profoundest respect. What he says is more important than any other words we may hear. Indeed, his words judge all the affairs of human beings (John 12:48). The truth of his words, then, must be our most fundamental conviction, our most basic commitment. We may also describe that commitment as our most ultimate presupposition, for we bring that commitment into all our thought, seeking to bring all our ideas in conformity to it. That presupposition is therefore our ultimate criterion of truth. We measure and evaluate all other sources of knowledge by it. We bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). (Five Views on Apologetics, pp. 208-9)
Frame assures his readers that the Christian bible (“Scripture”) “has a great deal to say about epistemology,” and immediately cites several passages from Proverbs and the Psalms.

Just so we don’t overlook anything, here are the passages Frame references (KJV):
Psalms 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.” 
Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” 
Proverbs 15:33: “The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility.” 
Proverbs 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
Now, when I see the claim that a certain source “has a great deal to say about epistemology,” I tend to look for discussions pertaining to what knowledge actually is, how it is acquired, how it is validated, how it is differentiated from other modes of awareness, how new items of knowledge can be integrated into the sum of knowledge one already holds, and fun stuff like that. Frame himself states that “the epistemologist must also wrestle with such matters as the relationship between sense experience and reason” (Five Views, p. 214). But we don’t find anything like this in the biblical passages Frame references. One can read through these verses and never know what the biblical definition of ‘knowledge’ might be, or even if there is one. Then again, years ago I was informed by a believer (in the comments section of this blog entry) that “the bible is not a dictionary.” And while it’s true that the Christian bible is not a dictionary per se, this would not prevent it from defining its key terms, something many instructional tomes in fact do. What source are believers to consult if they want specifically Christian definitions of important worldview concepts?

At any rate, on Frame’s view, the starting point for knowledge is a type of emotion – namely a “reverent awe” which compels obedience. This “reverent awe” itself, according to Frame, “is based on the conviction that God is Lord, and we are his creatures and servants.” But if this emotion is the starting point for knowledge, then how could it be based on something more fundamental (e.g., a “conviction”) and how can “the conviction that God is Lord” itself be based on any kind of knowledge? What Frame describes seems to be a blind loop of sorts: fear is the starting point of knowledge, and yet this fear is based on a conviction, which itself is presumably informed by knowledge, but yet the fear experienced in reaction to the conviction informed by knowledge, is the starting point for knowledge. For it’s doubtful that Frame would say that the conviction in question here is not informed by knowledge. But on a plain reading, what he presents here suggests that his “epistemology” is analogous to a dog chasing its tail in circles.

To fear something implies awareness of that something as well as awareness of what it represents to one’s values. If you’re hiking a country trail and you see a squirrel, you’re not likely going to be afraid of it. But if you learn that the squirrel is carrying rabies, you’re probably going to do anything possible to avoid contact with it if you know what rabies is and you know what’s good for you. All of this involves a complex chain of knowledge which we should not take for granted. So it makes no epistemological sense to claim that knowledge begins with an emotion, whether fear, awe, love, etc., for such emotions presume at least some rudimentary knowledge. Moreover, emotions are variable; they are not anything like unchanging fundamental facts. But if Christians want to admit that their knowledge begins on emotions, I’m not going to stand in their way.

Of course, what is the apologist’s plan of attack when he encounters someone who does not have the kind of fear described in the passages Frame references? The apologist can repeat the threats of divine judgment, eternal damnation, everlasting hellfire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc., but if one realizes that these threats are just imaginary, they’re not going to be frightened into the kind of fear that, according to Frame, gets “biblical epistemology” off the ground. Any variant of “if you don’t believe, then God’s gonna getcha for that!” will be like water off a duck’s back. Typically that’s when insults start to fly.

Frame does not seem to have a solution for this, but instead takes the fear in question for granted and proceeds to describe the basis of the conviction which supports the awe-fear cited in the biblical passages he referenced. This conviction is itself informed by things which the believer is supposed to accept as knowledge: “[God] has the right to rule every aspect of our lives”; “When he speaks, we are to hear with the profoundest respect”; “What he says is more important than any other words we may here”; “his words judge all the affairs of human beings”; etc. It is “the truth of his words” which “must be our most fundamental conviction.” For this to be the case, one would need knowledge of “his words” and also have the knowledge that they are true. In short, one would need to be a Christian to already think any of these knowledge claims are true. So again, we have knowledge informing a fear, and this fear is the beginning of knowledge. What Frame describes is closer to methodological amnesia than it is to anything resembling epistemology.

Frame characterizes this conviction, which itself presupposes a long list of assumptions, as “our most basic commitment” and “our most ultimate presupposition,” but on what is this “most ultimate presupposition” based? By what means does one acquire awareness of this “most ultimate presupposition,” and by what means does one validate the claim that it is true? Even though such questions are epistemologically relevant, they do not get any worthwhile attention. In fact, given that this conviction rests on a series of more fundamental assumptions, how could it possibly be “ultimate” in any epistemological sense? It certainly is not conceptually irreducible, nor does it denote something that is perceptually self-evident. None of what Frame describes as his “ultimate presupposition” denote something we can have direct awareness of. I suspect that there is much which Frame’s epistemology takes for granted and which remains unexamined.

In the same book, another Christian apologist, Kelly James Clark, openly disputes Frame’s notion of “biblical epistemology”:
Frame roots his epistemological commitments in Scripture and finds there support for the view that we can offer proof for our beliefs. Presuppositionalists have tended to believe themselves to be the biblical and Christian apologists (arrogantly so, in my estimation, when they call other apologetical approaches anti-Christian), but Frame is more generous in his assessment of other apologetic approaches. I am dubious, however, of finding any ultimate or coercive support for epistemology in Scripture. The Hebrews were not theoretical thinkers – wisdom was for them profoundly practical. To say that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” is not to make a claim about proper procedure in physics, packaging, or the culinary arts. It is a claim about practical wisdom – how to live one’s (moral and spiritual) life. The very idea of a biblical epistemology seems to be as misguided as the idea of a biblical meteorology. (Ibid., p. 256)
So this raises a perplexing predicament for believers generally, and apologists in particular. How can two Christian scholars disagree on something so important as whether or not there’s such a thing as “biblical epistemology”? No doubt both Frame and Clark have scoured the pages of the Christian bible, from the first chapter of Genesis to the final chapter of Revelation. And they both have backgrounds in academic philosophy. Thus, if there were in fact a distinctive epistemology laid out in the Christian bible, we’d expect Christian scholars to be in unanimous agreement on this. They might trifle over how certain passages adduced to inform said epistemology need to be interpreted, but the very presence of an epistemological theory being spelled out in some or several sections of the Christian bible should not be a point of contention.

The dispute here is even more difficult to untangle when considering Frame’s statements about faith and “the Holy Spirit.” For Frame, “Faith is a demand of God” requiring human beings to “repent and believe in Christ” under the context that “God commands us to do many things that we cannot do in our own strength” (Five Views, p. 217). Christianity styles faith as a “gift of God” (Eph. 2:8), so naturally the apologist is going to cite his deity as the source of his faith. Frame gives his rationale for this as follows:
But if faith governs reasoning, where does faith come from? Some might think it is essentially irrational, since in one sense it precedes reason. But that conclusion would not be warranted. The question, “Where does faith come from?” may be taken in two senses. (1) It may be asking the cause of faith. In that sense the answer is that God causes faith by his own free grace. This is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. (2) Or it may be asking the rational basis of faith. In that sense, the answer is that faith is based on reality, on truth. It is in accord with all the facts of God’s universe and all the laws of thought that God has ordained. The Holy Spirit does not cause us to believe lies. He is the God of truth, and so he makes us believe what is true, what is in accord with all the evidence and logic. The faith he gives us agrees with God’s own perfect rationality. (Five Views, pp. 209-10)
The idea that a supernatural being “makes” people believe things only underscores the underlying authoritarianism of the religious mindset. If one were made to believe something by some irresistible otherworldly force, we would as a matter of course expect that person to say it’s true. But he would not know that it’s true through independent examination. If one came to a conclusion by means of independent rational inquiry, he wouldn’t need to be “made” to believe it, for he would have arrived at it through clear, uncoerced discovery and validation.

But if we let Frame have his point, then the implications of his disagreement with Kelly James Clark raise grave questions. For both cannot be right on this: it cannot be true (a) that “Scripture actually has a great deal to say about epistemology” (Frame), and also (b) that “the very idea of a biblical epistemology seems to be as misguided as the idea of a biblical meteorology” (Clark). As we saw above, the verses which Frame cites as evidence supporting the notion of “biblical epistemology,” suggests that what he takes as epistemology is not epistemology at all, but rather a contorted view confusing emotion with knowledge and asserting the result as a noetic starting point. In the context which Frame provides with his claims about faith and the Holy Spirit against the relief of Clark’s disagreement, it seems we’d need to conclude that Frame has believed a lie and is thus not guided by the Holy Spirit. This seems to be what his own worldview implies here. If Christianity were true and the Holy Spirit is ensuring that the faithful are believing only truth and not lies, what would have to be the case when two people claiming to be Christians disagree on something so critical as whether or not the bible presents its own epistemology?

According to Frame’s frame of reference, Clark must be guilty of what presuppositionalists call “autonomous reasoning.” Apologist James Anderson characterizes “autonomous reasoning” as “treating fallen human reason as an independent and ultimate epistemic authority that can stand over God’s Word as a judge of its veracity” (Presuppositionalism in the Dock: A Review Article). Frame illuminates this in a footnote where he points out that “[Cornelius] Van Til likens fallen reason to a buzz saw that works well except for being pointed in the wrong direction” (Five Views, p. 214n.9). In his response to Frame, Clark makes the following counterpoint:
Unless the Holy Spirit totally overwhelms a person, human reason (of the autonomous variety) is still operative. We can seek to bring our minds into conformity with God’s will, but we have to decide which God and what is his will. We decide. [Quoting Frame:] “To claim neutrality is to claim that I am the one who ultimately decides what is true or false” (p. 218). But surely I am the one who decides what is true or false. Who else could do that for me? Of course, our deciding does not make something true or false; that is not my point. My point is that each of us must make decisions using our best judgment about what is true and false. I don’t see any other way around it. We have no other faculty than reason (in the broad sense) to come to our best judgment of which god to follow (or not) and what it means to follow that god. (Five Views, p. 262)
Hopefully Clark and Frame were not roommates at the time they wrote their respective portions of Five Views, otherwise someone would likely have been sleeping on the couch! But Clark is right in that there is no substitute for using one’s own mind to do his thinking. The presuppositionalist rejection of “autonomous reasoning” could only foster the view that sacrificing one’s own mind as such is the ideal required for genuine faithful piety. Moreover, Clark’s point that “unless the Holy Spirit totally overwhelms a person” should not be ignored: on Frame’s stated view, a supernatural being coercively takes over the believer’s mind, in effect destroying all volitional agency. This would render the believer to the status of an automaton or puppet, analogous to a character in a cartoon. But then what does this say about Frame’s contention that “the faith [God] gives us agrees with God’s own perfect rationality”? We just have more fundamental disagreement between believers.

The notion that “fallen reason” is like “a buzz saw that works well except for being pointed in the wrong direction” is rather telling. For one, it concedes something very important – that it “works well.” The insistence, however, that it is “pointed in the wrong direction” might not carry the sting which the apologist intends. For here we need to consider two fundamental questions:
1. What is reason’s starting point? and 
2. Does one’s reasoning take fully into account the distinction between that which is real and that which is merely imaginary?
If reason begins with the fact that existence exists, then already it has bypassed a fundamental flaw endemic to the religious view of the world – namely the view that existence is a product of conscious activity, a notion that is explicitly self-contradictory. By starting with the fact that existence exists, the rational thinker begins with both feet solidly planted in reality rather than in the void of religious speculation. Second, if one’s reasoning consistently recognizes that the imaginary is not real, and he has the self-awareness to recognize when he is imagining beyond what is warranted by the facts, then reason will never be able to lead a thinker to belief in supernatural beings. If Frame and other apologists want to say this is what is meant by “fallen reason… being pointed in the wrong direction,” they’re making quite an admission about their worldview.

by Dawson Bethrick

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