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Evangelical Epistemology

I have been looking for an epistemological foundation for my evangelical beliefs for several years now. When I first became a Christian, I was able to dismiss all epistemological questions related to my faith because of powerful experiences with God which were based on submission to Biblical teachings, not on theological or philosophical reflection. I think that position was important during that period of my life, but after a few years I yielded to the fact that mature Christian belief should involve theological reflection if it is to resist devolving into mere superstition. Since then I have never come up with an Evangelical epistemology that I have been satisfied with.

I am currently taking a Religious Epistemology course, taught by professor Keith Yandell. The course mostly follows his book on the same topic. I am hoping to use this as an opportunity to finally hammer out my own religious epistemology. My course grade will be based entirely on a twelve-page paper, due in two weeks. I am supposed to use formal logic, which I am about as comfortable with as I was doing geometric proofs in High School (not much). I’m hoping to use this blog to sort through the issues I want to deal with in that paper, or at least to lay the groundwork in my personal thoughts so that I can write something else.

Before I begin, I shall define my terms. By Evangelical theology (E), I mean theology that is based on the authority, infallibility, inerrancy, and inspiration of the Bible. I take it that E entails the following:

E1. God exists as Trinity, one substance consisting of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
E2. Jesus Christ is God incarnate, both fully God and fully human.
E3. Jesus Christ rose bodily from the grave.
E4. Humanity is enslaved to sin and destined to spend eternity alienated from God in hell.
E5. Jesus Christ made atonement for the sins of humanity on the cross, so that those who believe in Him will receive salvation.

By salvation I mean (a) having communion with God, and (b) receiving eternal life rather than eternal damnation.

When I first began my critical reflection, my defense of E ran somewhat like this:
1. I had powerful experiences of God after believing in Jesus. (A subject for another post.)
2. Having an experience of God entails (is dependant on) having received salvation.
3. Therefore I received salvation after believing in Jesus.

4. E entails that those who believe in Jesus will receive salvation.
5. Therefore E is correct.

There are several problems with this logic, however. First, premise 2 is based on E4 and E5, but these premises are themselves based on premise 5, which they are being used to prove. E4 and E5 would need to be supported on other grounds. Perhaps with some imagination I could reword the premises in such a way that would be logically sound. But this is not my primary concern with the syllogism.

A more critical error is that Premise 5 does not follow from 3 and 4. It is a fallacy that follows the form A entails B; B; Therefore A. For example, “Someone who has an M.Div. degree has necessarily taken at least one theology class; I have taken a theology class; therefore I have my M.Div.”
One possible way to avoid this fallacy is to change it to an argument of inference to best explanation:

5*. Based on Premise 4, E provides the best explanation for Premise 3.

But it is not at all clear that E is the best explanation. Many people in contrary religions have also had experiences of God. At the very least we would need comparisons with the explanations offered by other religions. Perhaps this is best way to proceed, but it requires significantly more knowledge than I currently have (or am particularly excited about taking the time to acquire). Instead, let me propose an alternate theological system that I shall call Soteriologically Pluralistic theology (SP), which is essentially Deism without the anti-supernatural bias. SP is based on the following premises:

SP1. God exists.
SP2. God has interacted, and continues to interact, with various people at various times (i.e. through prophecy, miracles, etc.)
SP3. Individual eschatological salvation (receiving eternal life rather than eternal damnation) is available through a plurality of religions.

SP is not pluralism in the sense that it entails that the major world religions are equally correct. Rather, it is pluralistic in the sense that salvation is not limited to a particular religion. Put simplistically, SP is the idea that God is more concerned with our deeds than our creeds.

Taking account of SP, my revised defense of E looks somewhat like this:

3. I received salvation after believing in Jesus.
4′. Belief in Jesus is a religion (namely, Christianity).
5′. Therefore I received salvation through a religion.

6′. SP entails that salvation is available through a plurality of religions.
7′. Based on Premise 6′ and Premise 4, SP and E provide equal explanatory power for Premise 3.

I began looking for another defense of my faith. Christian apologetics seem to place a large focus on proving the Premise, God exists, but the connection from theism to Christianity rests entirely on the Resurrection. This argument runs as so:

R1. Jesus rose from the dead.
R2. If Jesus rose from the dead then E is correct.
R3. Therefore E is correct.

R1 was easy to accept when I thought my argument from experience confirmed E. When I am trying to use R1 to establish E, suddenly the arguments seem significantly weaker. It is easy to believe in the resurrection if I already have good reasons for being an evangelical, but when those reasons start to break down, the resurrection seems much less plausible. It is definitely not plausible enough to become a foundation for soteriological exclusivism! And even if we accept R1, I’m not entirely convinced of R2.

In contrast, SP has several factors that make it epistemically preferable to E. It accounts for positive aspects of other world religions in a way that is difficult for E. It avoids the problem of declaring large swaths of humanity (especially those who have never heard, or those who lived before the time of Christ) to be eternally damned. Finally, it has the support of some strands of Biblical narrative, such as Melchizadek and the Magi.

Again, I ask for your comments. I am not very happy with what I have written here yet, but it’s good enough for the blogsphere.

Categories: Epistemology, Pluralism, Theism
  1. J. K. Jones
    December 11, 2007 at 9:16 pm

    How do we know what truth is?
    First, we can know truth. If I say, “There are no absolute truths,” then I affirm one truth: that I can know no absolute truth. Even if I affirm the opposite, I validate that I can know truth. I can know truth, and other views are self-defeating.

    Second, I can know that God exists. I don’t have room to flesh this out here, please try labels which contain the word “argument” over at jkjonesthinks.blogspot.com.

    From there: The Bible is good history (“The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict” by Josh McDowell).

    We can trust what the Bible says about Jesus because it is based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4, 2 Peter 1:16). These eyewitnesses were willing to die for their faith.

    Jesus claimed to be God. He said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Thomas said, “My Lord and my God,” and Jesus did not correct him (John 20:26-31).

    Jesus worked miracles and proved Himself to be God (John 14: 9-11).

    Jesus affirmed the truth of God’s Word. He said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). He said, in prayer to God, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17).

    Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to help the apostles remember and truthfully relate the events in the Bible (John 16:13-15).

    We have a Bible we can trust. It gives us God’s truth and equips us for faith and service (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

    The basic tenor of this argument is taken from two sources, “When Skeptics Ask” by Norman Geisler and “Reason to Believe” by R. C. Sproul.

    As R. C. Sproul pointed out in a recent lecture, if we have established that the Bible is God’s Word, every other issue becomes a matter of “exegesis,” deciding what the Bible says on the issue at hand.

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