Seminary Viewpoints

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Why Christians Can Have Certain Knowledge

Guest Author, Michael Riley | October 13, 2022
Theology Thursday

In Luke 19, Jesus tells a parable about a nobleman who “went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.” During his absence, his subjects send him a message: “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14).

These words express the fundamental commitment of autonomy: the unbeliever’s insistence that he has the unqualified right to run his life how he sees fit. It is the opposite of the most basic Christian confession: “that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11, also Rom. 10:9 and others).

The unbeliever’s commitment to autonomy shows up in every aspect of his life. Here, we will consider how his autonomy affects the questions of knowledge: can we know things? If so, how do we know things? And can we know that we know things?

These are no trivial questions. For Christians, our faith is never a merely intellectual matter — but it still does demand that we believe certain truths. Can we know, for instance, that Jesus is truly God? Is Christian belief rational and justified?

The unbeliever must also concern himself with questions of knowledge about both important and trivial matters. It seems easy enough to know all kinds of things, at least on the surface. But just a little digging suggests that knowledge might be harder to obtain than we might expect.

Autonomous Modernists and the Importance of Knowledge

In the history of philosophy, most thinkers have been quite confident that, if we are properly diligent with the right means, we can have clear and certain knowledge. They have, of course, disagreed about what those right means are (we’re talking about philosophers, after all). Some have insisted that the best means to obtain knowledge is rational thought. For the rationalists, the path to certain knowledge is found in making properly logical deductions from true premises.

Other philosophers have argued that sense experience is the surer path to knowledge. Instead of sitting in leather armchairs making logical inferences, these empirical philosophers have stressed the need to use scientific processes to find true facts.

Both these rationalists and the empiricists can, for our purposes, be categorized as modernist philosophers. Modernism, as a school of philosophy, stresses the importance of truth and the certainty of knowledge. As a rule, modernists are deeply committed to autonomy. For a modernist philosophy, it would be a terrible error to allow some outside authority to announce in advance what the truth must be. An autonomous philosopher insists that he must follow the facts or evidence or logic wherever it leads him.

Their Problem: Uncertain “Certain Knowledge”

This puts the modernist in a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, he wants to be confident that he has discovered that some things are really, definitively true. On the other hand, though, he has to remain open to new discoveries, new lines of logic. And the problem with that is one we’ve all experienced: there are times when we thought we knew something, only to stumble upon some new evidence that utterly overturns our previous “knowledge.”

So this is the modernist paradox: he claims to know some things and not know others. But what he doesn’t know could, at any moment, swallow up all the things he thought he knew. His “certain” knowledge is anything but certain.

Autonomous Postmodernist Correction: Relative and Subjective Knowledge

This dilemma marked the philosophical demise of modernism and the corresponding rise of postmodernism. While the modernist is brimming with confidence that he can know the truth, the postmodernist has been chastened and humbled by the limits of knowledge. He tends to stress the relativity and subjectivity of all “so-called” knowledge. In the most extreme forms, postmodernism denies that we can know anything at all.

Of course, this is self-defeating. Can the postmodernist know that he doesn’t know anything? There is no coherent answer to that question.

Like the modernist, the postmodernist is also committed to autonomy.

The Christian Difference: Certain Knowledge Through Submission

And this is where a Christian philosophy of knowledge stands apart. From the very beginning in the Garden, it would have been right for Eve to believe what God said about the fruit — and to do so, ultimately, for the reason that God cannot be wrong. For Eve to believe God in this way, of course, would have been to reject autonomy.

Unfortunately, Eve didn’t reject autonomy. Rather, she “lean[ed] on her own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).

Autonomy remains tempting. It is the serpent’s original offer: to be “like God” — although we already are like God, made in His image! — as God’s peer, rather than as His rightful subjects.

But here is the catch: if we insist on autonomy in our knowledge, we are left with no certain knowledge. But if we will submit to God, knowledge suddenly becomes real for us. How? Because I no longer insist on being the final standard for truth, I can accept revealed knowledge from the One who knows everything. God will never discover something that He didn’t expect.

God’s Word is therefore absolutely trustworthy. It cannot possibly be mistaken. So while there is plenty that I myself still don’t know, I know that I also won’t learn anything that will overturn what the omniscient God has revealed to me.

Unlike the autonomous man, I can know and not know at the same time, without my ignorance undermining my knowledge. In this way, not only my soul, but also my beliefs, are justified by faith.

As discussed by Michael Riley on The Steve Noble Show on Oct. 13