Robert Reymond on Mockers of Genesis 3

What follows is a section from the late Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian faith. Oftentimes, the fall is presented as a mere silly myth with no real depth to it. Reymond makes an interesting case that there is deep meaning tied to the sin of our first parents, namely, their rejection of the authority of God:

How shallow, then, is the oft-heard mockery of the whole situation in Genesis 3 that ascribes to God a ‘tempter tantrum’ merely because someone committed the picayunish act of ‘eating a piece of apple.’ The transgression of Adam was far more than that; it was at its core the creature’s deliberate rejection of God’s authority and an act of willfull rebellion against the Creator. It was man claiming the stance of autonomy and freedom from God. It was man believing that he had the right to determine for himself what he would be metaphysically (“You will be like God”), what he would know epistemologically (“Like God, knowing good and evil”), and how he would behave ethically (“she took and ate….her husband ate”). It was man heeding Satan’s call to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Authority was the issue at stake, and man decided against God and in his own favor.

(Robert Reymond. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997. Pgs. 446-447).

9 Principles for Bible Interpretation

9 Principles for Personal Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. It aims at getting at the Scriptures true meaning. For true Christians, God’s Word is life because it presents to us Christ who is our life. It is of utmost importance, therefore, to interpret the Bible correctly. Below I’ve listed 9 principles for interpreting the Bible that I think are necessary and/or helpful to keep in mind when pursuing the actual meaning of God’s Word. Philosophical Hermeneutics is an interest of mine, so I’m likely to update this post as I continue to think through the subject. That being said, this is more of an ongoing meditation, less an attempt at a doctrinal treatise. 

(1) Analogia Scriptorum (Analogy of Scripture) 

The Scripture is a light unto our feet and a lamp unto our path. When God inspired Scripture, He inspired it for the church. Therefore, in its main message it is clear enough for a child to understand. Notwithstanding this general simplicity, there are linguistic, cultural, intellectual, and moral barriers which keep us from understanding each portion of Scripture as clearly as the others. Therefore, when interpreting a difficult passage of Scripture we should look to other Scriptures speaking on the same doctrine or theme in order to interpret the more difficult passages. In a word, we interpret the unclear passages of Scripture in light of the clear passages

(2) Analogia Fidei (Analogy of Faith) 

Just as some Scriptures are not as clear to us as others, so too some doctrines are more clearly revealed than others. The Scripture clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly declares a high and lofty doctrine about itself, for example. It’s doctrine of angels and of the exact nature of heaven, on the other hand, seem more shrouded in mystery. While we should hold to a biblical doctrine all of biblical doctrine tenaciously, we recognize that some doctrines are more clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically revealed than others. Therefore, we should always interpret the less clear doctrines of the faith in light of the more clear doctrines.

(3) Scopus Scripturae (The Scope of Scripture) 

When you hunt, the scope is what you look through in order to shoot rightly at the target. In a similar manner the principle of Scopus Scripturae is a principle that reminds us to aim our hearts and minds at the center of the Bible, Christ (Christocentricity). We are aimed at seeing Jesus in all the Bible.  Likewise, It would be unfitting to study feline (cat) natures in Algebra II, because the scope of the class itself refers to numbers not to cat natures. So too, getting the organizing principle of the Scriptures right is of the utmost importance. The Bible contains a story, a philosophy, doctrine, poetry, and etc; yet, the Bible is not principally a textbook in Metaphysics, nor is it a few good rules you can follow in order to have a good life (though it does present to you a doctrine of the good life), nor is it just a story or drama. Rather, the Bible is a book about Christ (John 5:39) – His glory, His salvation, and how the Father is reconciling the world to Himself through Christ by the power of the Spirit. 

(4) Regula Fidei 

Protestantism rejects an infallible interpreter of the Scriptures outside the voice of God Himself speaking in Scripture. Notwithstanding, there is ample rationale, biblically speaking, to treat as normative the practice of immersing oneself within conversation on biblical interpretation which has gone on in the church for multiple millenia. Though the church is not endowed with the ability of infallible interpretation, she is nonetheless the pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim 3:15) who has been endowed with the Holy Spirit, who guides her into all truth (John 15:26-27). Christ appointed teachers (Eph 4:11-16), under himself as the Teacher (Matthew 23:8), to guide His people. We ignore them to our own detriment. The principle of Regula Fidei reminds us to interpret the Scriptures in the conversation of interpretation which the church has engaged in for thousands of years. 

(5) Context, Context, Context

Context determines meaning. If I walked up to a friend at church and said, “Friend, you are a pretty cool dude,” and he responded to me, “What are you talking about, I have a temperature of 102!” – he would be taking me out of context. A similar thing happens when we treat the Bible like a series of isolated Bible verses outside the original context in which they were given. Ample consideration, when determining meaning, must be given to historical and linguistic concerns. One must pay attention to the genre of the text under consideration, the audience, and the general flow of the argument or narrative. Failure to do so makes the Scripture like a wax nose, able to be made to say whatever the interpreter wants it to say. Context mediates against eisegesis (putting our own thoughts into God’s Word) and is key to exegesis (Grasping the meaning of the original author in interpretation). The Bible is God’s Word, written through human individuals – therefore ample attention must be paid to it’s individuality as well as it’s systemic unity. 

(6) Logic I: Non-Contradiction 

The maintenance of common sense logic is key to biblical interpretation. Imagine I walk up to you and ask, “What is your favorite color?” “Blue,” you reply. After which I say to you, “I agree, red is my favorite color also.” In the instance of such a reply you would rightly look at me with a face either of exasperation or you would laugh because you’d known I was making a joke. Contradiction literally means “to speak against” and what it means is, essentially, that because two propositions cancel one another out there is no actual meaning to what is being said. That is pretty abstract, so let me make the principle simple. At no point in your interpretation of two different passages are you allowed to hold two different interpretations which cancel one another out. You are not allowed to hold, for example, that it is and is not possible for a true Christian to lose their salvation. The law of non-contradiction (you’re not allowed to hold contradictory interpretations) is absolute and must be upheld consistently in  interpretation. 

(7) Logic II: Implication 

If all human beings are mortal, and socrates is a man, then it follows by implication that Socrates too is mortal. Humans have this innate ability to draw legitimate inferences on the basis of a limited amount of information. If I didn’t do my laundry the day before and my wife looks at me with a sour face as I wake up in the morning, I can make a probable inference that her sour is a result of my dour performance. If the Bible says that the Holy Spirit is God, the Son is God, and the Father is God, and that there is one God, we legitimately draw the inference of the doctrine of the Trinity. The fact is that the doctrine of the Trinity is just as biblical as the doctrine that, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” even though the former required logical inference and the latter did not. God knew he was writing a book to rational beings and thus what is logically inferred is just as “real” as what is explicitly stated and must be treated as biblical. The Westminster Confession states essentially this: 

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6)

(8) Ockham’s Razor 

If you walked outside after waking up from a night’s sleep and saw puddles of water on the ground you would be justified in saying that it probably rained. Though it is possible that martians from mars dumped water into puddles that made it look like it rained but actually it was them, it is highly unlikely and unbelievable that such an event occurred. This same principle applies to Scripture. Biblically, I could interpret the millennial reign of Christ to be preceded by apache helicopters carrying the antichrist from Russia to Hades, because of the imagery I see in the book of Revelation. I may even have a logically consistent system built off of such a doctrine in order to justify my belief; notwithstanding, the belief is unreasonable because I have multiplied complication unnecessarily and without warrant. The principle of Ockham’s Razor, as I understand it, is simply that you do not multiply unnecessary complication without due warrant. To state it more simply, you don’t make the text more complicated than God does.

(9) Thomas’s Scalpel 

Consistent with the principle above, at times the Scripture itself brings forward a complication. Being complex is not necessarily bad (in the Scriptures it is always good). In such a case, our job is not to shave down the complexity of Scripture; rather, our job is to make legitimate and logical distinctions so that we can hold to the complexity of biblical teaching. Because we are not allowed to have contradictions, we must make distinctions. For example, the Bible states and teaches that true Christians persevere till the end and that all who are united to Christ for salvation make it all the way to glorification (Romans 8:28-30). Nonetheless, the Bible also says that some people united to Christ are cut off from Christ (John 15). How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction? Some people say that the latter is hypothetical, that is how they reconcile the apparent contradiction (I think this interpretation violates Ockham’s Razor). As for me, I believe they are united, externally, to Christ’s body the church but not united to Him personally (What Berkhof calls the “Dual aspect of the covenant”). Either way, a distinction is necessary and it is proper for the interpreter of the Bible to use the Scalpel of reason to make such distinctions. (1)

Conclusion

Some of these principles are a bit more practical at the outset than others, so I will finish with a practical program for application drawn from my own experience. Begin by seriously considering the Biblical text in context. Though much can be gained by commentaries on given passages, the Bible itself is it’s own best commentary and much can be gained simply by immersing oneself into the flow of the text. If you do this enough, you’re naturally going to be asking questions of logic which were posed above. “How does this make sense given this?” At that point, you will be engaged in doctrinal formulation and some of the other principles will make intuitive sense as you seek to uncover meaning (the regula fidei, analogia fidei, etc.). So in the first, pay attention to context. And also in the first, pay attention to Christ. All study is in vain if we do not see with the eyes of our hearts the blessed Son of God. The worst error in the world would be to engage in serious study of God’s Word only to miss the essence of the Word, Christ. Be seeing Him in all His manifold beauty! As the Psalm states, 

“My heart overflows with a pleasing theme;

    I address my verses to the king;

    my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of the sons of men;

    grace is poured upon your lips;

    therefore God has blessed you forever.

Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,

    in your splendor and majesty!

In your majesty ride out victoriously

    for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness;

    let your right hand teach you awesome deeds!

(Psalm 45:1-4) 


Footnotes

  1. The content for this section, particularly the language of “Thomas’s Scalpel” was derived from thinking through a post that Mark Olivero made on the facebook page he moderates called, “Reformed Thomist.” Credit to him (and to Thomas)!

Aristotle’s Wisdom-Prudence Distinction and Ecclesiastes Use of Wisdom

Aristotle’s Wisdom-Prudence Distinction and Qoheleth’s Use of Wisdom

Introduction

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, two virtuous lives are presented, characterized by two distinct virtues: the contemplative and active lives, respectively characterized by wisdom and prudence. While wisdom is defined as a virtue of the speculative intellect which allows one to perceive the truth of things, prudence is defined as a virtue of the practical intellect which allows one to act in accordance with right reason in the utmost particular. Aristotle’s relation between these two lives is heavily debated by contemporary philosophers: some think that the two lives are inherently opposed and that Aristotle gives emphasis to the contemplative life, other the active life. While I think that Aristotle’s account is itself one of reconciling these two virtuous lives, my thesis here is that Ecclesiastes’ (hereafter referred to by its Hebrew title: Qoheleth) understanding of wisdom (Hb. hokmah) presents us with a synthesis of the two intellectual virtues and provides a way forward in understanding how to reconcile the contemplative and active lives. My argument hinges on two points: first, that wisdom has a dual function in Qoheleth—as corresponding, loosely, with Aristotle’s wisdom and prudence distinction—and second, that the synthesis between these two virtues is predicated on the connection between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.

Aristotle on Wisdom and Prudence

Previously I stated the distinction in Aristotle between wisdom and prudence, the intellectual virtues which are characteristic of the contemplative and active lives, respectively. The difference between them, however, needs to be made more explicit in order to appreciate Qoheleth’s synthesis. Wisdom (Gk. sophia) in Aristotle is that virtue which is characteristic of seeing or perceiving the truth of things—for this reason it is often seen as the chief of the virtues, as in Plato’s Meno, and often characterizes the ideal of the philosopher. [1] Wisdom, then, is concerned with the universals or generals: things predicated of many or all. Aristotle says, “in contemplative thinking…thinking well or badly consists in the true and the false respectively,” because “wisdom is a science and intellectual grasp of the things most honorable by nature.” [2] Prudence (Gk. phronesis), however, is the virtue which is characteristic of knowing what action is in accordance with right reason and will, therefore, lead to the human telos in the utmost particular, namely, the situation. While prudence involves knowledge of the universals (implied by sight or vision towards the telos of human nature and judging actions accordingly – i.e., by right reason), its distinctive character lies in its capacity to evaluate the absolute particular in view of the end, and no merely any end but the end in accordance with human nature qua human nature. This is what distinguishes prudence from mere cunning. Since, “good deliberation simply is that which guides us toward the end simply,” but prudence “is what guides us correctly towards some particular end.” Thus, “prudence is characterized by the giving of commands: its end is what one ought or ought not to do.” [3]

 Hokmah in Qoheleth

Hokmah in Qoheleth functions, I argue, in two ways: first, in seeing the truth of things; second, in prescribing both an end to be sought an offering itself (i.e., wisdom) as means to achieve that end. Since these two functions of hokmah loosely correlate to wisdom and prudence, respectively, there is, implicitly, a synthesis of these two. Let’s first look at the two ways hokmah functions.

  1. Twofold Function of Hokmah

First, wisdom functions as perceiving the truth of things. This is clear in Qoheleth’s hebel insight, that is, the incongruity-inequity of human existence under the sun. He describes all as hebel (1:2) and demonstrates the absurdity which penetrates through human wisdom (1:12-18; 2:12-17), human activity and agency (2:18-26), human experience of justice and injustice among the righteous and the wicked (3:16-22; 4:1-3; 8:14-15), and seemingly every other aspect of human existence. In this, Qoheleth perceives the underlying quality of things whose acknowledgement is painful. This is why he says, “he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (1:18) Hokmah in this function, loosely, corresponds to Aristotle’s wisdom, since it involves a proper perception of reality according to its general and/or universal truths—in this case, hebel. The hebel insight of Qoheleth is an insight of wisdom, the perception of the cosmic effects of fallenness: “See, this alone I have found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” (7:29)

Second, wisdom functions as perceiving proper actions towards the proper end of human nature: this is clear in his persistence insistence on the enjoyment of temporal goods and the fear of the Lord, despite the hebel of life under the sun. He repeatedly says, “I perceived that there is nothing better than for [mankind] to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (3:12; cf. 3:22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 12:13-14). Here the utmost particulars are considered and evaluated in light of the end (both in terms of final causality and final judgement) as either conducive towards or detracting from it. This is why Qoheleth speaks of doing good and fearing the Lord and keeping His commandments with virtual synonymy (cf. 3:16-17; 12:13-14). It is also important to note that this second function of wisdom depends on the first function: the proper knowledge of the truth of things contextualizes the particular considerations. The pervasiveness of incongruity-inequity, designated by the term hebel, properly contextualizes the worth of things and various activities.

  1. The Is-Ought Connection

In this twofold function of hokmah, we see Qoheleth arriving at prescription from description—even, in spite of it. The description of hebel contextualizes the prescription of enjoyment and doing good; even so the empirical observation that everything has its season or time grounds the later assertion of divine judgement against evil (see 3:16-17). Contra Hume, Qoheleth understands that any predication of ‘ought’ necessarily derives from ‘is’ since it is only intelligible on the assumption of a connection with and contextualization by ‘is’. This is-ought connection is predicated on the two functions of hokmah, since it seems proper to the one to describe the truth of things and proper to the other to prescribe actions conducive to the end in the context of the real. As Aristotle says, “prudence is not concerned with the universals alone but must also be acquainted with the particulars: it is bound up with action, and action concerns the particulars.” [4]

  1. Reconciling the Contemplative and Active Lives

From this I think we can begin to see how the contemplative and active lives may be understood in such a way as tends towards a synthesis. In Qoheleth, wisdom is one thing; while I argue it functions in two different ways, it remains a singular. Aristotle makes the distinction between these two functions and calls each by a name: wisdom and prudence, respectively. However, these two go hand in hand, as even Aristotle admits. Now, if these two virtues go hand in hand, it is reasonable to assume there is some congruity between the lives that these virtues characterize. The contemplative life of continually seeking to know the true is still a form of activity. The active life of seeking the good corresponding to action and choice is only possible if the individual possesses both knowledge and moral virtue: both contextualize the end in view of choice and action. The difficulty to this is the presence of hebel: the incongruity and inequity experienced under the sun. However, the synthesis of the active and contemplative lives, ironically, results from the uniting of human experience: connecting ‘is’ with ‘ought’ and thereby bringing coherence despite the absurdity of life under the sun. This gives us as Christians and as human beings a way forward in properly understanding the relation between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: ‘is’ leads to ‘ought’; there is no naturalist fallacy. What we are, when we find ourselves (i.e., factual statements) are what contextualize our pursuit of the good. We must never assume the reality of our being does not bear hold on our telos or morality. We must attempt to live coherent lives: ones where in our being imago Dei is united with natural virtue, where our being en Christou is united with theological virtue.


Endnotes:

[1] The task of the wise man is to order, this ordering is according to wisdom as per Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I, c. 1; Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I, lectio. 1-3

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1139a27-29, 1141b3-5.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1142b30-33, 1143a8-10.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1141b15-17.

PC:

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

BOOK REVIEW: Mere Calvinism, Jim Scott Orrick

Mere Calvinism by Jim Scott Orrick

“I held to what is called Calvinist doctrine before I had read a single page of the writings of Calvin.”

Overview: In Orrick’s own words, the purpose of his book is to write a, “simple, easy-to-understand explanation of the Five Points of Calvinism.” One of his main desires is that his book can be spiritually and intellectually beneficial to all types of Christians– from the newest Calvinist to the most experienced one. Throughout the book, Orrick follows the template of giving an in-depth overview of each doctrine of grace followed by a section dedicated to refuting common rebuttals or questions these doctrines could cause to arise. At the end of every chapter, several discussion questions are provided making this book ideal for a small group or a personal Bible study.

Appraisal: I have been a Calvinist for the majority of my life. I have been raised and taught the Doctrines of Grace for at least half of my life. However, this book was impressively thought-provoking, laid out, presented on the basis of Scripture, and the author articulated several vital arguments of which I had never heard before. Orrick starts the first chapter of his book defining what a, “Calvinist,” is. In a very simple way, he explains that a Calvinist (in accordance to the Doctrines of Grace) is somebody who believes that God does all that he pleases, and that he is the initiator, sustainer, and finisher of the salvation of men. It is nearly impossible to turn more than a page in this book without seeing a passage of Scripture that Orrick uses to back up his claims. As he states that the purpose of his book is, “not to explain what John Calvin taught but to explain what the Bible teaches.” Case in point, I was struck and fascinated by Orrick’s strong exegesis and overt skill in communicating to the reader through the lens of God’s word. Throughout the book, the author also raised up several extremely good rebuttals and scriptural texts against Arminianism and Open Theism (arguments I’d never heard before). My favorite section of the book is entitled, “What if?” In this section, Orrick asks the question, What if any one of the given “doctrines of grace” is not true? Going through each and every doctrine, the author shows the fallacies and issues that arise if any of these are abandoned. This section is almost worth the cost of the book alone, as it brings to light the countless problems of ideologies departing from Calvinism (Arminianism, Open-Theism, Amraldyianism, ext).

Criticism: It is very difficult for me to file any complaints against this book. One of the main issues that I had with it was too short. The Doctrines of Grace are so complex and beautiful, so much more could have been written on the subject. However, I realize the purpose and mission of the book is not to divulge every lasting implication of these doctrines but to be an easy-to-read tool and spiritual benefit to the lay-believer. One of my colleagues also pointed out to me that the title of the book (Mere Calvinism) is almost misleading. Calvinism, he claims, is not only the belief in the Doctrines of Grace, but in the spiritual inheritance of Calvin. My friend believes that the title may in fact be misleading as it does not address these other issues central to Calvin’s system; however, that is an issue for another time. All in all, neither of these complaints damage in the least the high regard in which I hold this book.

Recommendation: I can without a doubt recommend this book to any and every believer. Not only will reading this book polish up apologetic and intellectual skills, but it also portrays the beauties of the 5 points of Calvinism found all throughout Scripture, leading to the worship of God. It analyzes these in such a way that cause the reader to again discover the joy and awe that come from truly knowing their Creator and their Creators role in their salvation. As I finished reading this book, I walked away refreshed and rejoicing, praising and marveling at the awesome God we serve. I firmly recommend this book to all believers: whether someone just beginning to probe the depths of Calvinism, or a long-time theologian, everyone will benefit from this book.

Grade: 9/10

Can Christians Trust their History?

Epistemology is the study of how we as human beings know and are justified in having certainty about what we know. One’s epistemology influences their philosophy of history. Given the skeptical stance many scholars and lay-people have regarding Scriptural history, especially Old Testament historiography, it is safe to say they have a particular view of epistemology which engenders this skepticism (Provan 37-40). My purpose here is to analyze Rene Descartes’ epistemology and its impact on history. Before I proceed in that manner, a brief statement of how history is known with certainty is provided.

Philosophy of History: Distinguishing Historiography and Archaeology

The science of understanding and discovering what occurred historically is called historiography; simply stated, historiography is the study of historical writings in order to reconstruct the past. While some have sought to place a heavier emphasis on studying archaeological evidence to reconstruct history, the majority of one’s understanding of history must come from historiography (Provan 7-8). Archaeology should be utilized to verify the text, document, or stone tablet being examined; however, those studying history will not know the significance of such artifacts unless they have been recorded in a historical document. In essence, archaeology is fact without contextual interpretation. Written texts interpret the significance of archaeological facts. An example would be if someone were to find, years after I am dead, my wedding band, the person would be able to identify it is a wedding band, but the only way they would know if the band belonged to me is through a document which stated so or if my name was engraved on the inside of the band. Otherwise, without any written information as to who it belonged to, the person discovered a wedding band with no knowledge of the one who possessed it. Archaeology tells us about certain facts; historiography tells us what those facts meant to those persons engaged with them.

Cartesian Epistemology Stated

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) developed an epistemology and a method of epistemology which has influenced the study of history for the worst. Descartes’ most quoted saying, “I think therefore I am,” provides insight into the substratum of his thought. The epistemology of Descartes begins with the rational powers of one’s own thinking self. A reliance on testimony and information given through others is not the starting point of his philosophy. The aforementioned quotation, when unpacked in its full context, is saying one can have the indubitable certainty that they possess a mind and the ability to think. Descartes’ point of departure is the self as a thinking thing. He begins, certainly, with the self alone. The subject, therefore, can know, with epistemic certainty, that they exist in some form because they think (Stumpf 250-251).

However, at this point in Descartes’ meditation, it is impossible to know with certainty whether or not one has a body and whether or not the external world exists. For Descartes, the way one comes to a knowledge of the physical is through first acquiring a self-knowledge through cognitive abilities; in other words, the first step to knowing the existence of everything else is to know I, as a thinking being, exist. First, he establishes the indubitable: himself as a thinking thing. The second step then is to determine whether God exists. If God exists and He is good, then He is not deceiving me about the external world. Descartes explicates his own ontological argument which states that a finite, imperfect being cannot conceive of an infinite, perfect being on its own; therefore, there is an infinite being who is God (Stumpf 251-252). As one can see, Descartes was concerned only with a certainty of knowledge which stems from one’s self; given his concern, Descartes view of history was not particularly high, “Because historians employed observation and interpretation rather than logic and mathematics, the seventeenth-century philosopher Descartes, who rooted his thinking in self-evident axioms, proceeding to trustworthy knowledge and certainty by way of deductive reasoning and mathematical method, likewise did not think highly of history” (Provan, Long, Longman III, 20). 

Cartesian Influence Upon Old Testament Historiography

At this point, the question must be raised, how does Cartesian Epistemology influence the study of historiography? More particularly, how does Descartes’ epistemology affect the study of Old Testament history? For Descartes, knowledge begins with the ability to know with certainty via self-realization or self-awareness in the process of systemic doubt. In essence, the result of his epistemology regarding the study of history is that everything must be held accountable to the indubitable individual and his reason. The result of such a system is a form of history which is only somewhat knowable – it is, essentially, a radically dubitable history. What is meant by this, is that the history can only be known through what actual, reasonable, scientific facts present themselves. In other words, what science can confirm as true, as a universal axiom based upon one’s own reason (Provan, Long, Longman III, 45-48).

The notion of, “I think therefore I am,” while it holds some truth, cannot be that which governs the study of history because it results in an extreme skepticism of external sources. The result is that history, as an inquiry, would be void of any deliverance. The problem here is that history requires testimony, which is not subject to the standards of autonomous reason alone. While there are objective standards which can be held, such as multiple eyewitness accounts and the support of archaeological evidence (Provan, Long, Longman III 25-27), historiography is ultimately a matter of testimony and written accounts which provide insight into historical events.

Take the following example: Surely most people have experienced rummaging through old photos of their parents, grandparents, or some loved one. When this experience occurs, there are usually two scenarios which arise: 1) the photograph one is looking at has the name of those involved in the photo, the date of its taking, and the location in which it was taken, or 2) the photo does not provide this information, and the person inevitably asks their parent or grandparent about the history of the photo. Even in scenario 1, usually, a conversation is still struck in regards to the photo taken. The objective standard would be what can be reasonably known about the photo; for instance, if it is a photograph of one’s uncle, it would be unreasonable to say the photo is of their aunt. However, the testimony of the uncle is needed to understand the history of the photo; the person looking at said photo cannot reconstruct an accurate history unless they were there themselves. And even if they were there, their perspective of the situation may be different then the uncle’s, and they may remember details the uncle forget or vice versa. Ultimately, the one looking at the photo will need to trust the testimony of the person in the photo to know what history occurred surrounding the photograph.

The way in which this form of epistemology influences OT history, and the history of ancient Israel, is by seeking to deny significant events within the OT due to the seeming absurdity of them or lack of archaeological or extra-biblical evidence. An example of this would be the skepticism as to the actual historicity of the patriarchal era by scholars due to a lack of archaeological evidence. In essence, because there seems to be no extra-biblical evidence of the existence of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, then a disbelief of their existence is in order. This is based upon a presupposition of the Bible as a non-historical book or a semi-historical book and an epistemology which states that nothing that can be assuredly known can come from the testimonies of others. Even those scholars who would consent to the context and cultural surroundings of the patriarchal era being accurately portrayed by the Biblical text, they would argue this is only partial history and the Biblical text does not accurately and completely portray a true and pure history (Hamilton, 84).

Take this quote for example: “Admittedly, the biblical story about Jacob and Joseph contains elements of folklore. It was intended to be an interesting and edifying story, rather than a straight biographical account… Nevertheless, the biblical account is more than fiction. In its broad outline, as well as many of its details, it agrees with the historical setting of the second millennium B.C” (Anderson, 30). The question which arises is why, if the account fits the historical context, is the biblical narrative contained with folklore. Additionally, why is the biblical narrative an edifying story? When one encounters the biblical narrative of Jacob and Joseph in the Biblical text, the story is presented to the reader as an actual historical event. So, why deny the testimony of the narrative about itself? All the evidence points to the account being historical, but those with a purely scientific, rationalist, skeptic method will not concede to the evidence of the text’s full historicity. Not only does the historical context and the text itself appeal to the accounts historicity, but there are a people who have been around for centuries— the Jews—  who testify to the account. To deny the biblical narrative is to deny the history of the Jews and to deny the history of Christ.

The Christian Response: On Behalf of Testimony

The issue with Cartesian Epistemology for the study of history and historiography lies within the starting point of knowledge. If the starting point is me as a thinking being, the result is two-fold: 1) If I must predicate knowledge upon knowing myself as a thinking person, how am I able to come to a  knowledge of myself? The answer is simple: It is through the testimony of others. How do I know my name? It is through the testimony of my parents who named me. How do I know a language? It is through the testimony of another explaining to me the language. How do I know mathematics? It is through a teacher testifying to the principles of math. Even though I am capable of knowing I am a thinking being, I am still incapable to know who I am without a higher, more objective standard governing me. 2) This results in a skepticism in all that is external to me as a thinking being; for, I cannot be certain of anything unless it rests within myself as the thinking subject.

In regards to the first issue which arises, no one is truly the starting point for their knowledge. In some form, all men gain epistemological certainty from the testimony of others. The only one who is His own self-sufficient starting point is God. Therefore, one must be an infinite being if they are to have epistemological certainty which is rooted in themselves. For, a finite being cannot manifest this form of epistemological certainty— God is the only one who is able to do so.

See, Descartes’ epistemology is backward; a certainty of knowledge does not come from establishing one’s own existence and working up to God’s, but a certainty of knowledge comes from knowing God and working one’s way down to themselves. In essence, the Christian is able to have epistemological certainty of the history of the Old Testament, of God’s creation, of God’s goodness, and of himself because God is the only being who is able to have certainty of knowledge within himself. God is the one who defines who we are (Gen.1:27), he is the one who ordered the created universe (Gen. 1:1), and he is the one who governs history. Our certainty of the scriptures as a historically reliable text is due to God’s governance over his redemptive plan in Christ, and his desire to communicate the history and development of the aforementioned plan to his people; as well as the reality that the Biblical texts have proven to be historically accurate, even though there are certain areas of uncertainty.

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Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966)

Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd ed. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015),37-40.

Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre: a history of philosophy., 2d ed. (New York,: McGraw-Hill, 1975)

Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook On the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005)