There is no special theological epistemology

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One of the most commonplace ideas is that there is a special theological epistemology, a special way by which people come to know and think about the things that Christian theology talks about. The most explicit statement of this special epistemology is found in Kevin Diller’s book, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (IVP Academic, 2014). Basically, Diller’s idea is that theological knowledge comes about by inspired insight. One is enabled by God to appreciate the truth of a theological proposition even apart from the experiential givenness of the things themselves to which the proposition itself refers. Thus, for Diller, one can come to know that Jesus was raised from the dead, even apart from an experience of the resurrected Jesus Himself, simply by coming to have a sense of the truth of the proposition: Jesus was raised from the dead.

I reject this point of view. I have argued against it in a paper of mine. I also argue against it in forthcoming books. I think Diller’s theory represents a fairly definitive statement of the epistemological consequences of the way that the mainstream Christian theological tradition has come to understand the faith and what it’s concerned with. That is why I think there is need for a radical paradigm shift in Christian theology.

Diller argues that special theological knowledge is a matter of perceiving the truth of theological propositions by the assistance of the Holy Spirit in the experiential absence of the referents of these propositions. This is impossible. That is because the truth of a proposition is not a monadic property. A proposition is true if the thing itself to which it refers is such as the proposition describes it. Truth is thus a relation that a proposition bears to the real-world things to which it refers, and a relation cannot be perceived where one or more of the relata are not given. One cannot see that x > 100 unless the value of x is given. One cannot see that one cat is fatter than another unless both are presented. Perceiving a relation is a matter of comparing things, and one can only compare what is given. Thus, neither can one see the truth of a theological proposition in the experiential absence of the things themselves to which that proposition refers. Therefore, it is impossible to know things in the way that Diller proposes. You cannot see the truth of any proposition in the experiential absence of the things to which it refers.

Diller appeals to a notion found in Alvin Plantinga. This is called “doxastic experience.” Effectively, Plantinga says that there is a difference of “feel” between true and false propositions. True propositions feel a certain way; false propositions feel another way. And when the Holy Spirit enables people to perceive the truth of a theological proposition, He is making it possible for them to “feel” that this proposition is true rather than false. The certainty that Christians often feel about their convictions, even despite their inability to prove them true by reference to the things themselves, is attributed to the operation of the Holy Spirit. But this is a mythology.

A proposition cannot be said to “feel” or “seem” true in the absence of the real-world things to which it refers. One can feel convinced of a proposition at one time and later come to be convinced against it, even though the truth of the matter cannot have changed in the meantime. This happens whenever one changes one’s mind about some matter of enduring truth, such as issues in metaphysics, ethics, and history. One can first be convinced of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, or of the permissibility of some action, or of the reality of some past event, and later come to be convinced against it, even though the truth has not changed. There is no “perceiving the truth” in any of this. There is just a matter of feeling inclined to accept a proposition and then feeling inclined to reject it.

Diller is right that knowledge is a matter of perceiving the truth of a proposition. But this can only happen by verifying that proposition against the thing itself to which the proposition refers. Knowledge is a matter of becoming aware of the relation of adequacy between one’s opinion about a thing and that thing itself. And from this it follows that if there is to be any knowledge in theology at all, if theology is not to be totally unfounded speculation, if the certainty of people’s theological opinions is to have any rational basis in reality rather than being a purely psychological curiosity with a theological origin myth attached to it, then theology has to concern itself with this great world of experience where the truth is encountered and discerned in all other domains of inquiry as well. There is no special theological epistemology.