Ridley Systematics: Epistemology

18 10 2012

The English Puritan, Richard Sibbes, encouraged his congregation in the 17th century with the following words:

 Labour for the Spirit of God…Beg of God to seal to our souls that the Bible is his word, and the he would sanctify our hearts to be suitable to the word, and never rest till we can find God by his Spirit, seasoning our hearts, so, that with relish of our souls may suit to the relish of divine truths, that when we hear them we may relish the truth in them, and may so feel the work of God’s Spirit, that we may be able to say, He is our God.

–Richard Sibbes, The Marriage Feast Between Christ and the Church, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes Vol II pg 496

It is appropriate to begin this with a reminder from Richard Sibbes that we might take into consideration that theology is more than the act of learning, it is more than the act of application, rather true theology begins with a miracle.  That miracle being the work of the Spirit of God to sanctify our hearts, making a fit receptacle for his word, that our souls might “relish the divine truth” found in Scripture.  So before any text is read, before any words digested, before any truths applied, lets remember together at the outset that we’re not dependent upon how great or how weak our intellect, but rather dependent upon the Spirit of God.

The overall aim in this course is to help you see the unity of the Christian faith, by examining the several parts systematically and relating it to a unified whole.  I remember one time becoming lost in the mountains.  Luckily a friend had trained me in orienteering.  When orienteering, you simply need to find three waypoints then you can locate yourself on the map.  So I ascended the ridge, found my three waypoints, and knew exactly where I stood.  My aim is to help you find some waypoints in the Christian faith, so that you’ll have a place to stand.  If you’re a Christian, there is only one possible place to find yourself eventually and thats standing on the solid rock that is Jesus Christ.  All roads and every waypoint leads back to him, and that is the simple and humble aim of this course, to lead us back to Jesus.

As this course was being composed someone asked me, “What is Systematics anyway?  It sounds like medicine you’d take to get rid of a cold!”  Well, indeed the name is not entirely appealing and I will concede that it does sound like a remedy for a cold.  But that wasn’t really what this person was saying.  What he was really saying was, “you don’t expect anyone to come to that do you?  It sounds so boring!”

This cultural dismissiveness of theology is nothing new.  English playwright Dorothy Sayers noticed and commented upon it extensively.  One of her more famous observations is as follows:

 Away with the tedious complexities of dogma — let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!” The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular.

Let us just worship, be, feel, experience God.  Well that is all fine and well.  But who is this God that we’re called to worship?  Who are we in relation to him?  How should we expect him to make us feel?  What should our experience of him be?  Why should we expect others to worship a God that we can’t even describe?

Imagine if you sat down with a husband and wife to engage in marriage counseling.  The wife says, “he never listens to me.”  The husband says, “I don’t want to listen to you, I just want to be with you.”  Just as that would not work in a marriage, neither does it work in religion.

The study of theology is critical to learning who God is, hearing from him, and listening to him.  There are many approaches to theology.  What I’m specifically engaged in during this course is systematic theology.  Systematic theology is a summary of major Christian doctrines laid out in a logical and ordered way.  Furthermore, these major doctrines are laid out in a logical order.  In other words, you have to discuss some things before you can discuss others.  The first thing that many theologians believe must be discussed is something called epistemology, which simply means the study of knowledge.  What follows is a look at how we gain knowledge, how much it is possible to know, and of what benefit this knowledge is to us.

At the beginning of what is one of the finest non-Biblical books about God ever written, namely The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote the following:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts:  the knowledge of God and of ourselves.  But, while we are joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.  In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” (Acts 17.28).  For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God.

-Calvin, Inst I.1.i

Now what he’s saying, though it sounds complex is really quite simple.  When you and I think about ourselves, its hard not for us to think about why we’re here, what brought us about, even the explicitly religious question of “who made me?”  In fact, this question is a universal question of humanity.  No group of people has ever been discovered, who as a culture had adopted the position of atheism.  It is natural for people to look at themselves and infer that they were placed here either by a personal God or an impersonal divine force.  The point being, you cannot consider yourself without being led back to a consideration of God.

Now everyone considers God.  But just because everyone does it does not mean that everyone does it in the right way.  Dutch Reformed Theologian Herman Bavinck observes:

All men really are seeking after God…but they do not all seek him in the right way, nor at the right place.

– Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith pg 22

What did he mean by this?  Well, he meant there is one right way to consider God and countless wrong ways to consider God.  Before we talk about the right way to know God, it would be beneficial for us to explore two wrong ways that we could consider God.

The 20th century existentialist philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich once penned a very important essay entitled The Two Types of Philosophy in Religion where he said all schools and theories of philosophy in religion can be grouped under two contrasting paradigms.  One paradigm he called “overcoming estrangement.”  The other paradigm he called “the stranger we never meet.”

Overcoming Estrangement:

In the overcoming estrangement paradigm, God is not truly a stranger at all but is rather woven into the fabric of everything.  This is the operating paradigm of many Eastern religions and much Western thinking. Michael Horton helpfully describes this paradigm when he writes:

The divine is somehow buried within us, a sacred spark or soul trapped in a body, space, and time…the ultimate source of reality is not outside of us but inside.  God does not enter into the times and spaces he has created; rather, all of reality emanates from this divine principle of unity like rays from the sun.

–Michael Horton, Systematics pg 36

In this paradigm, truth about God comes from within not from without.  I said this paradigm finds its expressions in Eastern religions, but that doesn’t mean that the West is immune to it.  In the West, it is not explicitly present in religion but rather in philosophy.  For example, the renaissance philosopher Rene Descartes locked himself in a tower and adopted an intentional skepticism.  He did this so that he could come up with a universal principle that cannot be doubted.  Out of this process he wrote the famous dictum Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am.  For Descartes, truth comes from within.  Truth is validated by his own internal experience.  The eminent sociologist Christian Smith, from the University of Norte Dame conducted a research project on moral framework of young adults.  He observed:

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked”…When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.  Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

­–David Brooks, “If it Feels Right” NYT

Now I would argue that this is the operating philosophy of North America, and though much of our religious thinking would deny this philosophy on paper, I would say it has infiltrated the church and greatly affected it.  We understand God is present when we can feel him, and he speaks when we “know it to be true in our own soul.”

The Stranger We Never Meet:

The first paradigm of overcoming estrangement sees God as being so near to us that he is indistinguishable from us, our thoughts and feelings, and how we understand truth is based most often on how we feel internally.

The other paradigm that Tillich posited was what he called “The Stranger We Never Meet.”  This paradigm rightly understands that if there is a God, he is so different from us as to be utterly incomprehensible to us.  In other words, God is so vast, so infinite, that we couldn’t possibly know him.  The gulf between us is simply too large.

Historically this has been summarized in the formula finitum non capax infinite which simply means the finite is not capable of the infinite, man is not capable of comprehending God.  He is beyond our reach.  Who could possibly understand him?  This is not entirely foreign to the Biblical paradigm by the way.  We need only look to the Apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy, when he writes of “the Sovereign” as him:

who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.

(1 Timothy 6:16 ESV)

Where we most often see these in the West is in Deism and Atheism respectively.  In Deism, God created the world but he remains distant and detached from it.  In Atheism, because God cannot be grasped it is inferred that he cannot exist.

Curiously enough both paradigms lead you back to self, where the only truth that can be known is what you feel internally rendering it impossible for you to justify universal claims about God, existence and morality.

Meeting a Stranger:

Alternatively, Christianity posits something different than the previous two.  Christianity affirms that God is not like us.  He is utterly strange and entirely incomprehensible to us.  Because of this, Christianity affirms that there is no clear pathway from us to God.  But whereas there may be no clear pathway from us to God, there is a clear pathway from God to us.  God is a stranger who comes to meet us.  He blazes a trail, as it were, across the great divide that separates us.

When I say that there is a great divide that separates us, I’m not necessarily referring to sin, although that is a great divide that separates us.  I’m talking about things I’ve already referred to.  We are finite.  God is infinite.  Finitum non capax infiniti, the finite is not capable of the infinite.  As Jamie Smith, one of our course lecturers has written:

“If God is infinite and language- particularly conceptual language – is finite, then how will it be possible to speak of God…?”

–  Smith, Speech and Theology pg 52

If the only tool at your disposal is finite language, how is it possible to even talk about an infinite being?  And if you can’t even talk about him, how can you possibly know him?

We can know God only if he makes himself known on our own terms, according to our own capacity.  To put it more simply, the eternal needs to be made in time, the infinite needs to become finite, the spiritual needs to become physical, that which is unseen needs to be made visible.  God in his greatness must condescend to us and make himself small enough for us to know him and comprehend him.  He must accommodate himself to our spiritual, mental, and physical capacities.

God’s Accommodation of Himself

God makes himself small enough for us to grasp him, or comprehend him in four significant ways.  They are:

  1. The accommodation of God in creation
  2. The accommodation of God in his written word
  3. The accommodation of God in Christ
  4. The accommodation of God in the church (this will be covered in later posts)

The Accommodation of God in Creation:

God has made himself small, or accommodated himself in creation.  In creation, we see God’s eternal nature expressed in time, we see his invisible nature expressed in visible and material things, we see his infinite goodness reduced and made finite.

        The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours out speech,

and night to night reveals knowledge.

(Psalm 19:1-2 ESV)

How do the heavens and the earth declare the glory of the Lord?  Well, they do so because in some respect they are like him, and imitate him, like an analogy.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

(Genesis 1:31 ESV)

God, who has an infinite goodness within himself has granted a finite goodness to creation.  The goodness of creation is not the same as the goodness of God, but the goodness of creation is like the goodness of God.  One is an analogy of the other.

In beholding creation, as John Calvin wrote five hundred years ago “a school for God’s children” (Inst I.vi.4).  As a school that teaches us who God is, it is to be admired, enjoyed, learned, and used to drive the furnance of worship.  Jonathan Edwards knew this well.  He once wrote in his journal after a long walk the following words:

I was walking there, and looked upon on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express.  I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction:  majesty and meekness joined together:  it was a sweet, gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and a great, and holy gentleness.  After this my sense of divine things gradually increased and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness.  The appearance of everything was altered:  there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything.

–Edwards, Works 16, 793-4

Creation has the capacity to reveal much to us about God, but it does not have the capacity to reveal to us all there is to know about God.  For example, in creation we learn of God’s power, majesty, and even his divine justice.  But we do not learn of his mercy nor of his love.  Creation lacks the capacity to communicate such things.  So we must not look only to creation, but to the other accommodations of God as well.

The Accommodation of God in His word:

God reduces, accommodates, and makes himself small enough for us to understand in his spoken and written word.  This is by the way, man’s first experience of God.

        So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

(Genesis 1:27-28 ESV)

God speaks.  Perhaps you remember earlier we talked about the problem of speaking about God at all.  How can finite words express an infinite God?  We can speak about God in concrete, limited words, because it was God who first limited himself in order to communicate with us.  I used to think agnosticism was a respectable intellectual position, navigating some of the extremes of religious belief and atheism well.  I now no longer believe this.  Why?  Because agnosticism presupposes a God who does not communicate.  But we believe in a God who does communicate.

We must be on guard not to let the Bible make us arrogant about our belief.  As glorious as the Bible is, we must realize that God’s speaking to us is an accommodation, a reduction of himself.  John Calvin wrote that the Bible was God’s “lisping” to us, which is another way of saying that the Bible is God’s baby talk to his children.  But it is nevertheless God speaking.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

We can say even more.  The Bible is not merely the record of God’s speech but the record of God’s activity in history.  We know who God is not by speculating about his essence, but rather about what he has done in history, entering into it and orchestrating it according to his purpose.

As Michael Horton has written, commenting on Paul’s apologetic method:

Philosophers were used to debating the latest ideas, Paul concluded by announcing the latest historical event in God’s redemptive work.

– Horton, Systematics pg 47

That God would condescend and humble himself to be revealed in creation makes us wonder if perhaps there is an even greater condescension than creation, an even greater humbling of himself than his word.

John Owen writes:

 A mere external doctrinal revelation of the divine nature and properties, without any exemplification or real representation of them, was not sufficient unto the end of God in the manifestation of himself.  This is done in Scripture.  Bu the whole Scripture is built on this foundation, or proceeds on this supposition- that there is a real representation of the divine nature unto us, which it declares and describes.  And as there was such a notion on the minds of all men, that some representation of God, wherein he might be near unto them was necessary- which arose from the consideration of the infinite distance between the divine nature and our own, which allowed of no measures between them- so, as unto the event, God himself declared that, in his own way, such a representation of himself was needful.

–  Owen, Vol I.69

And this brings me to my final point:

 God’s accommodation of himself in Christ:

It is not creation that is the fullest accommodation of God.  Nor is the Bible the fullest accommodation of God that we have.  Rather, it is Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh (although our experience of this is now mediated through the Scriptures).  In creation God demonstrates his power to us.  In his word he speaks to us from the clouds, or through prophet, or on a page.  But in Christ, he speaks to us face to face, using his own lungs to expire, his own tongue to form words, his own facial expressions to add emphasis.  But God does more than simply speak words through Jesus.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John 1:14 ESV)

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  He didn’t simply speak, but he came to live.  He engaged in learning, both the learning of languages and skills.  He engaged in the socio-economic realities of living in a persecuted and impoverished minority group.  He traded ideas and participated in cultural life.  He traded in business.  He went to weddings and funerals.  He had arguments with his parents and siblings.  This is what it means for the word to become flesh, for God to become a man.  When I speak to a child, one of the first things I will do is get on there level so that I can look them in the eye.  I don’t want to speak above them, but to them.  I chose small words.  God in Christ has come down on his knee, looking us in the eye, speaking to us in small words.  He does this so that we can know him.

John Owen writes:

(Christ) is the complete image and perfect representation of the Divine Being and excellencies…. Unto such a representation two things are required: (1) That all the properties of the divine nature- the knowledge whereof is necessary unto our present obedience and future blessedness- be expressed in it, and manifested to us.  (2)  That there be, therein, the nearest approach of the divine nature made unto us, whereof it is capable, and which we can receive.

– John Owen, Christologia (vol I.69)

Put simply, in Christ God has approached as closely as he can to us and in Christ God has given us the fullest revelation of himself that we are capable of receiving.  Thus in Christ and only in Christ can we truly know God.  But it is also in Christ that we come to truly know ourselves as well.  We started this discussion with the following words:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts:  the knowledge of God and of ourselves.  Calvin, Inst I.i.1

When God made the nearest approach to us that he is capable of doing and we are capable of receiving, we rejected him and called him a liar.  The best of us abandoned him.  The worst of us executed him.  As John’s Gospel says, “he came to that which was his own but his own received him not.”

And just as Calvin said that a consideration of self necessarily moves us to consider God, in considering ourselves murderous rebels, who annihilated our own creator we must consider God.  How should we expect God to bear with rebels and sinners?

Rather than speculate about who God is and what he might do, we must look to what God has done when he made his nearest approach to us in Jesus Christ.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.

(Luke 23:34 ESV)

In Christ we see how God regards rebels and cowards.  He he humbles himself and condescends by speaking “Father forgive them.”

We end here and it is very important that we do so.  The manner in which we come to the knowledge of God, namely through his own condescension and humbling of himself, is a foretaste of our own salvation.  God reveals himself to us by grace alone, as an act of infinite divine humility and condescension.  God saves us by an act of grace alone, as an act of infinite divine humility and condescension.  Thus even in our own discussions about how we come to know of God, we may preach the glorious Gospel of his divine grace.


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10 12 2012
Study Theology to Bless your Soul « A Glorious Revolution

[…] read the whole piece at Awakening Grace […]

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