In the last post, I identified epistemological normativity with the universals—the forms or categories that make knowing possible—yet the normative factor in epistemology is more than just the universals of objects. We need to understand objects not only in comparison to similar objects and in contrast with dissimilar ones, but in relation to the whole of the created order. Knowledge concerns, furthermore, not only of objects but events. The categories of objects, or universals, do not explain the meaning of the event. Normativity must then involve also the knowledge of the unity objects share, as well as the relation objects bear towards one another, their relation to the events of history, and the rules by which we relate them to one another (logic, reasoning). These relations help us not only identify objects, but to interpret their significance in relation to history.
However, only God has exhaustive knowledge of creation, history, and is perfectly reasonable. Because He knowns the world and Himself exhaustively, He has pre-interpreted all events and objects in the world. In addition, it is His faithfulness that sustains the so-called laws of nature and logic.1 Normativity, the standard by which we interpret objects and events, must then rest in God. For us to have knowledge we thus need access to God’s interpretation of reality. God has revealed Himself: He has revealed His interpretation of History, creation, and objects. For one, every particular object furnishes a perspective on all similar objects—we can learn something about all animals by studying one. Therefore, God reveals some of what is necessary to understand the created order in the order itself. Furthermore, the entire universe is the created universe: it can only be properly understood with reference to the One who created it. In Romans, Paul writes that God has made Himself known in all creation: when humans look at the created order, they recognize the invisible attributes and power of the Biblical God (1:18-32). This suggests that God has both left His recognizable imprint on the created realm and given us, as His image bearers, the necessary mental faculties to connect this revelation in creation with His character—we have in our minds the necessary data to interpret correctly the world when we observe it. This created revelation is helpful in understanding God’s world, yet it is corrupted by sin (Rom. 1:18-32), so we a further revelation from God to repair our perception. For this purpose, God has given us the Bible.
God has spoken at many times and in many ways throughout the created history, yet we don’t have access to every word He has spoken. What we have access to is a canonical document, a document that God has ordained as a standard of truth so that those who follow Him might be able to perform every good work (1 Tim. 3:16-17). The Bible gives us necessary categories for interpreting the world—it is sensible, created, not God, it reveals God, it is originally good yet cursed, etc.—and the true account of its history necessary to understand everything that exists and takes place within it. Therefore, though all objects of knowledge reveal God and function in a normative way, the Bible has been ordained by God to have a special place—a uniquely normative function. It is the ultimate reference point, to which all our fallible judgments must be compared.2 If God’s interpretation of creation and God’s revealed Scriptures are ultimately normative, this has significant implications for the way we seek knowledge: it determines our ultimate authority.
Every time we seek to know something, we do so with reference to an authority: we consciously or sub-consciously have a standard to which we give the final decision whether something is to be believed or not. All worldviews have an ultimate authority: for any unbelieving worldview, this authority is ultimately man himself, but for the Christian it can only be God. If only two levels of reality exist, the creator and the creature, then our ultimate epistemic authority must rest on one of these two levels: either God our creator is the final measure of truth of His creatures are. Once we eliminate God, we are left with man—man is the one who interprets the world, uses reason, creates idolatrous religions (though sinful spiritual beings may at times be involved too). The worldviews that most explicitly put humanity in the seat of ultimate authority are those descended from the Enlightenment, the various forms of Modernism and Post-modernism.3
The entire project of Modernism rests on the assumptions that the universe is a closed system without any outside interference and that human beings have the capacity to rightly interpret and systematize this universe: in theology, this was seen in the exclusion of God from reality. God was either made so immanent that he collapsed into man (e.g., Schleiermacher, Hegel, Feuerbach, Bultmann) or so transcendent that he left humanity alone or was radically independent even from its thinking (e.g., Deism, Kant, Harnack, Barth).
In Modernism, God is excluded from the realm of rational thought: what is true is what corresponds to man’s experience and is derivable from their or is deducible from man’s reason. In Post-modernism, the same authority is given to man, but it is denied that one man’s interpretation of the world, history, or even a text is determinative for others. There is no one right interpretation: the subject is so inextricably involved in knowing and experiencing the world that meaning doesn’t ultimately exist apart from each individual’s interpretation.
The Bible will not allow these worldviews: God has interpreted all history, the whole world; there is objectivity. Though no single human being can capture the richness of God’s knowledge from their finite perspective, they can truly know many things: they will be able to apprehend on a creaturely level many things but will never be able to fully comprehend the fullness of truth as God does. Because God, and God alone, holds the ultimate perspective, because He knows all things exhaustively—including what is true and what is false—He must be the Christian’s standard of authority4. This means that when He speaks, His words have authority over even our most sure reasoning. God has revealed Himself in all creation, so His authority is impressed upon us as we interpret the world around us, but He has ultimately revealed Himself in His Word. Therefore, “When we have a settled view that Scripture teaches p, then we must believe p, over against any claim that p is false.”5 Because we do not have exhaustive knowledge of the universe, there is a measure of possibility in even our most sure applications of logic, yet God knows everything exhaustively. If He says something is true, then we have no choice but to trust that this is indeed the case (e.g., God can be three in one sense while being one in another). It is in God’s great mercy that He has revealed Himself, making it possible for us to have true—even certain—knowledge, for finitude is not the only impediment to learning and knowing: all human beings are affected by what theologians sometimes call the noetic effects of sin.
2 This suggests that Scripture must be more perspicuous than creation. This is affirmed throughout the Scriptures, and is also supported by the fact that the Holy Spirit accompanies the believer in his or her reading, illuminating the Scriptures, and that the Bible is a closed book, allowing firm and certain conclusion to be drawn from it—which cannot be said about the incredibly vast universe that is the subject of inductive study. On the last point, see J. Alexander Rutherford, “The Irrationalism of Rational Thought,” Blog, All for the Glory of His Kingdom, February 27, 2017, accessed April 25, 2017, https://allforthegloryofhiskingdom.wordpress.com/2017/02/27/the-irrationalism-of-rational-thought/.
3 This is also seen clearly in Greek Philosophy before this.
4 “God knows everything, every fact, every person, every event. He not only knows every state of affairs; he knows each one from every possible perspective. He not only knows the number of books in my study, but also knows how those books appear from the perspective of a fly on the wall. And even if there were no fly, he knows how my study would look from the perspective of a possible fly.” Frame, Systematic Theology, 698.
5 “P” being a placeholder for any true statement. Ibid., 721.
“Reflections on the Bible” flickr photo by changeable focus https://flickr.com/photos/changeable_fate/32927765744 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license